The recession that has staggered the world economy has leveled the nonprofit world. Endowments have lost significant value, and donations from corporations and private citizens have dwindled. But dealing with hard times is nothing new to many in the nonprofit sector. Well-run nonprofits know how to be frugal as well as creative in how they work with limited resources.
A core competency of the nonprofit world is people, men and women who are committed to a cause who know how to get effective results. A virtue of effective nonprofits is their culture; it extends beyond a gathering of like-minded people who want to do good; it is a generative culture that focuses on learning.
Recently I asked Stephen Gill, a colleague and consultant who has worked a good part of his career with the nonprofit sector, three questions about the value of creating a learning culture. This is a topic that Steve has written about in his newest book, Developing a Learning Culture in Nonprofit Organizations.
Organizations are cutting resources and headcount. Why is it important for an organization to create a learning culture?
“It is precisely because they are cutting resources and headcount that organizations, nonprofit and for-profit, must find ways to be more efficient and effective with what they have… To maximize productivity they need to be continuously learning. They must learn what they should be doing, how they can do it better, and how they will know when they have achieved the results they want…This means making information feedback, reflection, and knowledge-sharing part of the way they function on a day-to-day basis… Doing more of the same, even if slightly better, is not the answer.”
What can the for-profit world learn from the nonprofit world about establishing a learning culture?
“Nonprofits tend to be values-driven. They are concerned about the beliefs and motivations of their employees. This means that these organizations ask themselves questions such as: Are we doing what we ought to be doing in the way we ought to be doing it? What’s the impact on our communities and is that the kind of impact we want? Are our actions aligned with our values? In a learning culture, these questions are asked constantly. For-profit organizations should be asking these questions more often. They would have greater employee satisfaction and engagement and they would be better corporate citizens.”
What is a key take away from your book that has relevance to a manager seeking to navigate hard times?
“This is no time to do nothing about improvement. Even when the economy turns around, it is no time to be doing business as usual. Rapid change will continue and unless organizations are continuously learning they will not be able to sustain themselves. They need feedback and they need to reflect on that feedback and turn that learning into action. What better time than now? A no-growth mode gives managers the time and rationale to focus the organization on the collective discovery, sharing, and application of new knowledge. This is critical for emerging from hard times and managing the economic upturn that is inevitable.”
Fundamental to a learning culture is measuring impact, something in which Gill specializes. He has spent a good part of his long career helping organizations assess their learning and measure the effectiveness of their training programs. One evaluation tool included in his book features three essential questions that would be useful for any executive to use when gauging the effectiveness of any project. The questions are: one, what issues do we still have; two, how can we strengthen our organization based on what we know; and three, what challenges lie ahead. Answers to such questions can lead to honest evaluation of progress.
Next generation organizations will continue to evolve in response to the dynamic nature of bringing people together to work. Central to future success will depend on how well the organization can adapt and innovate. Those competencies will depend on creating a learning culture.