Defining your organizational wellbeing

Author: Jim Rice

Boards, Aikido and the New Normal for Nonprofits

Boards of nonprofits can play an essential role in championing and empowering their organizations to map a new journey through the challenges and uncertainty of the "new normal." The destinations of these journeys are quite likely to represent new ways to define the organization's vitality, resilience and overall wellbeing.

I have personally had about 50 conversations during the past six months with board members and executives from a diverse mix of nonprofits suggest a five-step process to accelerate a roadmap to success in the new normal. This process also helps ensure a cost-effective implementation of the roadmap by a broader network of supportive stakeholders.

The challenge, however, is that the more than 1.5 million U.S. nonprofits are realizing they have varied understandings of the characteristics of the new normal. This uncertainty can be clarified and mastered in a five step process we call the "Aikido Path to Resilience and Vitality."

The Aikido Metaphor

Aikido is a martial art that redirects the threat of an opponent or crisis to a more peaceful resolution.1 Aikido literally translates to the "the way of harmonizing with energy." A Japanese martial art founded by Morihei Ueshiba (commonly called O-Sensei) in the early twentieth century, aikido is recognized for its unique spirit, so different from many martial arts which make sportive or combative aims their sole rationale. Masakatsu Agatsu, "true victory, is victory over the self," was a favorite saying of the founder to demonstrate aikido as a means to transcend dualistic conflict. We use the metaphor as a tool to stimulate, and give permission to nonprofit leaders and stakeholders to think differently about the challenges of the new normal. These challenges call for fresh ways to build new roadmaps to success on the other side of the pandemic.

New stakeholders in the journey

The power and sustainability of the Aikido Path is a direct function of the scope and diversity of stakeholders invited into the mapping process. Essential participants should include such eclectic players as board members, executives, enterprise risk management brokers, beneficiaries, staff, supply chain representatives, donors or service purchasers, and selected policy makers. The quality as well as complexity of results from engagement depends on diversity of experience with your nonprofit, as well as diversity of age, race, faiths, professions and ethnic cultural variety among the stakeholder participants. Review the five steps of Aikido mapping.

1. Defining the new normal in three scenarios

The new normal is landscape we have not journeyed through before. The boards of nonprofits can acknowledge that this uncertainty brings risks that staff, beneficiaries, and donors may not fully understand. Nevertheless but the organization needs to undertake the journey even in the face of these risks. The first step of the Aikido process is to invite diverse groups of stakeholders to define three alternate scenarios from a three-by-three matrix. One side of the matrix represents high, medium and low probability, and the second side defines high, medium and low importance to your mission. Brainstorm among the participants where they would place a range of these type factors in the nine-cell matrix. You can develop your own factors unique to your community and mission:

  • Ability to recruit and retain staff and volunteers
  • Beneficiaries need for your services
  • Change in public policy
  • Digital tools to enhance service delivery or advocacy
  • New service providers competing for your beneficiaries or donors
  • Strategic alliances, mergers or partnerships to purse your mission
  • Trends in operating costs

A healthy discussion should define an optimistic but possible future scenario, as well as pessimistic but possible worst-case scenario, and a third scenario in between the extremes. Describe the scenario in language and human interest dimensions to make each scenario interesting and provocative.

2. Mapping and overcoming threats to the journey into scenarios

Board and management leaders should form at least two diverse groups or teams of stakeholders for each of the three scenarios. Ask each of the two groups to discuss, debate, and reach consensus on answers to these three questions:

  • Q1: If we were to experience this scenario within the next six to 18 months (pre-pandemic, the strategic thinking horizon would have been three to five years), what would be the main threats or obstacles from this new reality to our nonprofit's vitality and mission accomplishment?
  • Q2: If we were to experience this scenario within the next six to 18 months, what would be the main positive opportunities from this new reality to our nonprofit's vitality and mission accomplishment?
  • Q3: Given the list of our prioritized threats, and our prioritized opportunities from the scenario, what actions should we take to best mitigate the threats/risks and maximize the opportunities in each scenario? Give the participants permission to not only think and discuss "outside the box," but encourage discussions of how your work may need to pivot into new forms of service or advocacy to thrive in the new reality.

The conclusions forged from these discussions can drive assumptions for your operational planning and budgeting for the coming fiscal year. They can also help your efforts to re-engage with your supply chain partners to reduce operating cost and maximize service provision levels.

3. Conducting Funding and Donor Charrettes

The new normal challenges our journey to mission with gaps in funding, erosion of donor support and vendor supply cash demands on our constrained cash balances. Nonprofits also face added costs to recruit, onboard and retrain staff and volunteers after furloughs, service interruptions and reactivation of service delivery sites. We are likely to need new cash, capital financing and working capital lines of credit terms, and perhaps new in-kind donation of systems and expertise to make the journey to mission through the new normal landscape. Nonprofits are exploring new ways to engage with current and new donors by adapting the strategy development charrette2 concept to philanthropy and donor engagement.

The "Donor Charrette" can be organized to be virtual or in socially distanced, planning retreats. While experienced facilitators can help in the design and conducting of these charrettes, your staff can achieve good results from these design elements:

  • Explore use of the charrette concept in pro bono conversations with respected urban planners, architects and strategy advisers.3
  • Assemble three small groups of diverse donors (big and small) that have experience in multiple gifting methods, to include galas, events, major gifts and planned giving. Orient them to your view of alternate future scenarios, and to the value of a more collaborative style of mission-driven philanthropy.
  • Engage the donor teams in an afternoon and evening charrette session to explore their insights into new uses of funding; new ways to build your updated strategic philanthropy plans; and new ways to encourage and enable longer-range friend-and fund-raising for your unique mission.
  • Capture the conclusions of the charrette into actionable work plans that your board and development committee can use to engage staff and volunteers for implementation, to monitor progress to plan, and to celebrate gains to fund your mission journey.

4. Transforming the governance model

Just as you map a new strategic path to your new normal, you may find it helpful to explore how your governance model might need to transform. The governance model may need to better oversee the implementation of your roadmap, new strategic partnerships, and new sources and uses of funding. We frame this governance review to assess and update your "Big G Dimensions of Governance." These dimensions include the number of governing bodies, size and composition of the board, number of and role clarity of committees, and use of advisory boards. A further area, the "Small g Dimensions of Governance" includes culture of decision-making, style of meetings and stakeholder engagement, communications around your decision-making, and the effectiveness and efficiency of your decision-making processes.

This transformational review and update of the governance model can enhance your organization's capacity and capability to thrive within your new normal. Further, such review can ignite a renewed sense of engagement, ownership for your mission and plans, and pride in how your nonprofit enterprise functions.

5. Leveraging digital engagement

While we joke and complain about the Zoom, Microsoft Teams and other digital platforms to empower our pursuit of mission, these digital platforms hold promise for nonprofits by:

  • Enhancing awareness of your mission among broader and more diverse populations and stakeholders via refreshed websites, social media and web-based decision-support systems.
  • Expanding use of virtual software platforms to broaden the diversity of participants in your planning, program evaluation and resource mobilization. Within the constraints of time-zones, we see valuable participation and fresh models to cope with the new normal from nonprofits in the UK, EU, Latin America and Asia.4
  • Optimizing opportunities to engage volunteers and donors in web-based project management tools.
  • Relying more on short video blogs to tell beneficiary, staff, supply chain and donor stories aligned with your mission and plans.
  • Broadening your use of password-protected intranets to support accelerated teamwork by the board, as well as a communication system for staff in mission-critical initiatives and projects.

Self-confident and experienced nonprofit boards can create the conditions within which these strategic thinking and mapping processes can flourish. Rather than shrink from the challenges of the new normal, embrace them and empower your leaders to leverage the new landscape to expand levels of service, organizational vitality and face the future with confidence.


1 Aikido Association of America and Aikido Association International. March 2, 2021.
2 Michigan State University School of Planning. "NCI Charrette System™." March 2, 2021.
3 Dr. James A. Segedy, AICP, and Bradley E. Johnson, AICP. "The Neighborhood Charrette Handbook." March 2, 2021. Michigan Townships Association
4 ThirdSector. March 2, 2021.

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