Latest nonprofit buzzword of the year: Resilience

30 Jul

Nonprofit trend watcher Lucy Bernholz compiles an annual list of buzzwords shaping conversation about nonprofits. Over the last few years, she’s chronicled the rise of such now familiar (and sometimes groan-inducing) buzzwords as “infographics”, “evidence based practice”, “impact investing”, “storytelling” and “charitable tax reform”. She’s just added “resilience” to the 2012 list, as in resilient organizations and leaders that can adapt and evolve in uncertain operating environments. She observes that “resilient” may be the new “sustainable” aspiration for our sector. I agree.

Back in 2009, grantmaker organization Philanthropy Northwest organized its annual conference around what was described to me as the “edgy” theme of nonprofit resilience. The organization commissioned me to write a brief “thought paper” to stimulate conversation. Since there was not much written back then about this topic specific to nonprofit organizations and grant-making, I dug into the concept as it existed in several other fields, including psychology, biology, and engineering. It was an interesting project, and Philanthropy Northwest’s leaders now seem quite prescient in flagging this topic as relevant for the sector. Here’s a couple of the 2009 insights that still stand out:

  • Consider how resilience is observable only as a reaction to a disturbance or crisis. If you take a moment to brainstorm “what resilience looks like in action”, you’ll surface an internal tension: resilience requires both the ability to adapt to changing circumstances, and the ability to resist change.
  • Certain characteristics predict whether individuals or organizations will be resilient in the face of crisis. Optimism, surprisingly, is not as important as being grounded in reality; that is, the ability to accurately gauge conditions and options for action.
  • Collaboration is one resilience-enhancing behavior that has been actively fostered by the philanthropic community, to increase both effectiveness and efficiency of non-profit work. On the other hand, another resilience-enhancing behavior, improvisation, can be constrained by funders who value precise work plans and proven approaches
  • Resilience during a crisis depends on what is cultivated during periods of relative stability or gradual change. Unfortunately, key drivers of resilience may be dismissed during stable times as inefficient or irrelevant investments because their value is not demonstrable until a crisis emerges.

I like the idea of “resilience” as a new and improved “sustainability framework. For organizations, the simple concept of sustainability can even be dangerous, as it can be reduced to keeping the organization we have through sustainable programs or finances, when really what at least I want for our work is for it to be meaningful and life-affirming. “Resilience” seems to capture that better. What do you think?