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Eyes Wide Open: Managing the Risks of Adaptation

Nonprofits are increasingly discovering the need to become more agile to cope with the complexity of their operating environments and the quickening pace of change and competition. Adaptive capacity, the ability to change alongside shifts in the environment, is an asset to any organization. Adaptive organizations acutely recognize interdependence with their environment. Moreover, they understand the need not only to adapt to their environments, but also how to adapt their environments to them when possible.

Change is not neutral; it can either cause an organization to improve or regress. Since risk naturally accompanies adaptation, it is important to develop strategies that illuminate and manage uncertainties and risks when adaptive capacity is deployed.

Girls Write Now (GWN) is writing and mentoring program based in New York City. In order to continue to meet their mission, they have adapted their programming to integrate digital technology through a grant by the Hive Learning Network, a group dedicated to transforming the learning landscape. GWN’s attempt to bring their traditional curriculum into the digital age provides a useful case to illustrate the management of risks in a process of adaptation.

With guidance from digital media consultants, GWN is rolling out a year of "digital immersion," infusing every part of their programming with digital education and innovation. Though intended to provide constituents with a new toolset for an increasingly digital world, this change also poses several risks, including:

1. The possibility of weakening their current curriculum by taking out existing elements to incorporate digital components;

2. Consequences of altering team dynamics by introducing new members with digital expertise who may not be skilled in the traditionally core areas of mentoring and writing; and,

3. Attracting a ”power block” of new donors and constituents who do not buy into the overall mission but specifically value the digital components.

Organizational adaptation is a necessary process for organizations to evolve alongside their environments.

As GWN pursues this change, they must be open and continually aware of these risks. They may seek to expand their adaptive capacity with a number of strategies, including:

1. Openly discussing the risks during organizational meetings;

2. Establishing and disseminating a set of value statements that counter these risks; and,

3. Creating an anonymous comment box and encouraging staff to note any instances where the group’s perceived risks are detracting from the program.

Organizational adaptation is a necessary process for organizations to evolve alongside their environments and constituents. The key is not to shrink from risks or pretend they don’t exist, but to manage with risks in plain sight.

Shena R. Ashley is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Public Administration in the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs and a Kauffman Professor of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Syracuse University. Her research is focused in the areas of grant making effectiveness, community change and nonprofit finances. 

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