Nonprofit associations: institutionalized organizations or living, dynamic organisms?
Which view do you embrace?
The Human Factors
Associations are not buildings. They are not organizational charts. They are more than institutions governed by sets of rules, processes and formalities.
I believe that associations are living organisms…when we allow them to be so.
Associations are groups of like-minded individuals that form communities. Each community becomes an operational unit of a more structured, formal organization. These communities express a common vision and mission.
Behind every organization chart, whether it be staff or volunteer structure, is a living system of people. While this is painfully obvious, in most of our associations, we frequently overlook the human factors. We forget that we are by the people, for the people.
Outdated Structure Models
Unfortunately, most associations design their organizational models on routine, mechanical, automated principles. They design their methods and process based on systems of data and record keeping.
Too often we organize our associations anchored in internal structures. We align staff and resources by programs, logistics and record-keeping. We compartmentalize everything from the detailed analysis of how to do something. We build organizational charts.
The expertise of the association staff is oriented toward professionally managing the resources allocated to them. Their focus becomes the utilitarian management of those resources as applied to the programs they oversee.
The result? Performance gaps. Status quo initiatives. Progress in one department that has negative repercussions in others. Members feeling disconnected, like the organization exists to keep staff employed. Staff feeling like members don’t care about the organization’s mission or vision. Inactivity.
Everything is designed to be controlled, managed, dominated, ruled, manipulated.
And then we wonder why more people don’t engage with staff and leaders.
New Models Of Engagement
We need to rethink our systems and design principles based on levels of engagement. We need to think about setting up processes that allow for the human factors.
We need systems of feedback. Not forms to complete. Not online “contact me” questionnaires.
We need to start thinking of our organization in terms of living systems, not ways to control people. We need to think about ways to empower people.
The Physiology Of An Association
We need to shift our thinking from an anatomy perspective (programs, departments, tasks, silos) to the physiology of the organization (how it works, grows and stays healthy).
Physiology is the way an organism works. It deals with the internal functions of living things such as metabolism, respiration and reproduction. It focuses on the systems within the body that keep it alive, healthy and growing rather than the shape or structure.
We need to think about how the organization rears its young. How it responds and adapts to change. How a change in one part of the physiology can impact the entire system.
We cannot change the performance of our associations without a deeper understanding of how organisms work.
We need to remember that an organism can only exist through the living cells from which it is composed. Our associations can only exist through the living communities made of human factors from which it is composed.
Ignore the humanness of its members and the organism will become a stale, lifeless institution.
How can we structure associations differently to focus on living systems instead of the archetype of anatomy? What analogies can you draw about the physiology of an association as compared to the traditional departmentalized anatomy structure?