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Agile in Nonprofits Interview with Solomon Belette

This article was originally written by Diane Leonard and Jessica Crowley of Agile in Nonprofits. Find it here!


Solomon Belette is the Director of the Sanford Institute of Philanthropy JFK University and the author of an article, “Agility of the Nonprofit Enterprise in this Period of Pandemic”. Diane and Jessica from the Agile in Nonprofits team had the opportunity to interview Solomon and find out what inspired him to write this article and understand how COVID-19 has impacted nonprofits in his region.


Can you tell us a little more about your work at the Sanford Institute of Philanthropy and your experience with Agile?

Solomon: I have been intimately involved with the development, growth, and expansion of the Sanford Institute of Philanthropy, AKA, SIP (not Shelter in Place) since 2015. The Institute is the brainchild of T. Denny Sanford, a philanthropist, who felt that traditional fundraising approaches to raise money for worthy nonprofit causes were, at best, ineffective with high net worth donors. He himself experienced it as a donor and surmised that many others like him probably did not have a positive experience with professional fundraisers. So, he believed that nonprofit fundraisers needed to be retrained in an approach that was less transactional, as in the sales world, and be more relational or even transformational for the donor. This fundraising model represents a major shift from the traditional fundraising paradigm that has dominated philanthropy for many decades. 

Sanford’s vision is to make the Institute an educational vehicle in the fundraising space, targeting all those involved in fundraising work, especially those new and emerging leaders who are getting started in philanthropy. The goal is also to build a strong and robust program infrastructure around the country that is committed to the Sanford Way. SIP at JFKU is one of those affiliates, among many others, that have sprung to change the fundraising landscape through professional development and continuous engagement with graduates and alumni of our Fundraising Academies.   SIP has established a strong brand and reputation for its unique approach and its commitment to a credentialed workforce. 

In the five years since the Sanford Institute was established, we have provided numerous training and skill building opportunities to nonprofit leaders, i.e., executive directors, board members, development and marketing professionals, as well as volunteers on our Cause Selling framework. We use a textbook, Cause Selling – the Sanford Way, which has recently been revised and a new edition is out and available. 

Cause Selling is a donor-centric approach, relational not transactional, first and foremost, and the curriculum we offer provides a comprehensive, eight-step cycle or phases beginning with Prospecting and culminating in Stewardship and the cycle continues. 

Successful fundraising happens when you invest in all the fundraising cycles and failure to do so can contribute to a sub-optimal performance. We believe strongly that this “cause selling” approach yields a better and much higher return on investment. One of the unique aspects of the Cause Selling approach is the emphasis placed on understanding the different donor social styles and making sure that the fundraising strategies used by fundraisers reflect planning and sensitivity to the particular social styles of donors. 

With the Covid-19 pandemic, fundraisers have to adapt and be flexible in how they engage potential donors, i.e. prospects, those who are actively contributing, as well as lapsed donors.  We are rethinking and reimagining donor centricity and instilling in fundraisers the need to be more empathetic, showing gratitude, and to invest more in stewardship and cultivation. 

Fundraisers need to embrace Agility as a skill set and a mindset to adapt to this new reality and be able to manage the challenges and opportunities we are faced with in philanthropy and the nonprofit sector. 

I am a strong advocate of agility as an approach that nonprofits can and should embrace to steer their organizations forward to help them achieve stability and sustainability. Now more than ever!


What inspired you to write the article, “Agility of the Nonprofit Enterprise in this Period of Pandemic?"

We are living in unprecedented times, challenging on the one hand, but also filled with opportunities for new and innovative ideas. As a graduate student in the MBA Program, my thesis project was focused on developing a framework for understanding and analyzing nonprofit organizational health. As a nonprofit leader that has provided executive leadership to nonprofit organizations, and now with the work of the Institute interfacing with many nonprofits in the Bay Area, I have become keenly aware of the importance of organizational health. The question I posed was, what is nonprofit organizational health and how do we know that an organization is healthy or not?  

After conducting the research on local nonprofit organizations, with a combination of surveys and interviews, my conclusion was that agility itself was a primary indicator of organizational health.

Agile organizations were those that contributed maximally to achieving organizational health in terms of their functioning effectively, coping adequately, changing appropriately, and allowing them to grow from within. 

This was my first exposure to a closer understanding of agility. Thanks to the work that McKinsey and Company has done on agility, and a lot of published materials in the Harvard Business Review, my belief and professional commitment to an agile approach in leadership, change management, project management, etc., has been reinforced even further. 
I consider myself a novice in the agile space and have a lot to learn. However, I am convinced that an agile approach is what nonprofit leaders need to manage their organizations more effectively and efficiently. As businesses are increasingly shifting from traditional management models towards Agility, it is also imperative for nonprofits to do the same. That was what my blog was all about. 
I felt that in the current pandemic environment, agility deserves greater consideration than perhaps in the past. Nonprofits must be more nimble and flexible, invest in creating high performing teams, focus on ways that can help them increase mission effectiveness, and deliver the best in class quality of services.  It takes organizational agility to do so. 
We need to begin by talking about it and increasing awareness of the Agile framework in the nonprofit community. An agile framework can be integrated into all aspects of nonprofit work; in operations, in finance, in program development, in strategic planning, including governance practices. Agility has relevance in all areas. 

How do you think Agile helps nonprofits during a time of crisis?

 When I was doing my research on nonprofit organizational health in 2019, we were in what seemed like normal times. Nonprofit organizations experience episodic, case-specific crisis situations, some of it driven by external factors but also internal issues, the loss of a leader, the lack of preparation for succession, a major cutback in funding, or public exposure of gross mismanagement or a scandal. 
Even the 2008 financial meltdown did not cause major disruptions to nonprofits across the board. Those nonprofits that had built a financial reserve were able to weather the storm and the casualties were fewer and far between. We were only dealing with a financial crisis then. Today, the crisis is compounded with a virus-driven pandemic resulting in financial reverberations of significant magnitude, one of the highest unemployment records, and we are also confronted with the challenges of dealing with systemic racism and injustices. These forces, the virus, the economic repercussions, and the Black Lives Matter protests/movements are all converging into a tipping point, with new possibilities and opportunities like we’ve never seen before. 
This new reality, which as we know is fluid and evolving as we speak, is posing tremendous challenges to nonprofits forcing us to rethink and operate differently. The crisis has impacted operational systems and structures of nonprofits, and this has happened at a rapid pace of change than we are all accustomed to. Technology is playing a huge role facilitating remote working conditions and providing new ways to deliver services; the educational landscape is being transformed with the crisis accelerating the pace of change than had been anticipated. What we are experiencing and witnessing right before our eyes are also high levels of organizational pain and stress, with serious concerns about the survival and viability of many nonprofits. Nonprofits are talking more about mergers and consolidation, shared space, co-leadership structures, and so forth.  
A recent report by the Independent Sector reveals a serious threat even to those mid-sized nonprofit organizations that have been forced by the pandemic to furlough and/or lay off staff at a higher percentage and reducing or curtailing services. 
Let’s face it. The nonprofit sector is a vital part of the national economy; the sector generates almost 1/10 of U.S. GDP and employees of nonprofits make up more than 1/10 of the labor force counting millions who volunteer. The nonprofit sector is complex and large, contributing annual revenues exceeding $1.7 trillion with US GDP at about 18-19 trillion. 
The question, in terms of the crisis, is how it impacts nonprofits organizational health. In order for organizations to function effectively, cope adequately, change appropriately, and grow from within, we need to shift and pivot towards an Agility framework.
I affirmed the five key dimensions of agile organizations advanced by McKinsey and Company in my blog. These dimensions are Strategy, Structure, Process, People and Technology. The current crisis facing nonprofits requires them to re-think and re-examine their strategies. Those with a strategic plan in place must look at it in terms of the short-term implications to see what portion is relevant and what portion is not and determine the kinds of changes and priorities that need to be reformulated for the long run. Similarly, operational and management structures have to also be looked at carefully especially as nonprofits pivot towards a virtual format. The processes of conducting business, the types of skills and upskilling needed, and embracing technology are all key aspects of this adjustment by nonprofits. In other words, these cannot be achieved without incorporating an agility framework and system. Each nonprofit has to come to terms with the new reality and the future, which is already here and not two or three years out.   
I also think we need to incorporate the role of culture and organizational leadership in the broader agility framework. Culture is the glue that holds organizations together, it is what defines and differentiates organizations. The organizational culture can enable agile practices to be the norm or it can stand in the way. Leadership is also critical in establishing agile practices and in sanctioning the roles and behaviors necessary for agile practices to develop, grow, and flourish within an organization. An agile organization needs leadership that understands the intricacies of how things come together, a systems, holistic view, but also leaders that lead with empathy and emotional intelligence. 

What are some of the programmatic impacts of COVID-19 on your local nonprofits?
We conducted a survey of 174 local nonprofit organizations in the East Bay to assess the overall impact of the Covid-19 on their clients/constituents, the organization itself (staffing, finances, fundraising, etc.) and also to learn more on what steps organizations are taking to pivot and adapt. It was a moment in time survey which we hope to follow up by another survey in the Fall. 
The findings revealed the significant impact on organizations (both immediate and 3-6 months out) but they also brought to the surface some of the underlying systemic issues of disparity and injustices that are prevalent in our communities which exacerbate the impact of Covid-19 disproportionately on minority communities.  
Despite these underlying issues and challenges, the survey shows that nonprofits are demonstrating a level of resiliency and pro-activeness that exceeded our expectations. 
The implications of the findings provide opportunities for action by philanthropy, nonprofits, businesses, and local government to work together in a cross-sector, collaborative fashion to address both the immediate challenges, which is where agility comes in, but also the systemic issues of poverty, racism, and social injustice. 
The survey report is available on our website,

What are some of the ways that you are seeing COVID-19 impact your local nonprofit staff?

SIP is part of a broader affiliate network. In this new environment, we have to adapt by retooling and offering our services in ways that can help build and strengthen philanthropy. Covid-19 was a rude awakening but that is not the only issue we are faced with. We must also look at how we adjust our business model to ensure that we are managing our resources, time, talent, and treasure, optimally and more successfully and be good stewards. This requires an agile framework. 
Nonprofit leaders in our community are shifting their focus from relief to rebuilding and resiliency as they try to mitigate the impact of Covid-19. Leaders are engaging their staff more often to assess their needs as the staff is making the necessary adjustments to a new work-life balance. Nonprofit staff is also finding new ways to engage their clients and constituencies. We are seeing more cooperative and collaborative efforts between organizations as they try to close the safety net gaps for clients. Covid-19 has also unleashed a greater push for social justice and advocacy work. 
Nonprofits across the board are learning more on how to utilize virtual platforms to engage donors, to conduct special events, to deliver tele-services especially in areas related to health, legal services, and mental health counseling. 
Obviously some organizations have the bandwidth to adapt quickly and with greater ease than others. Organizations responding to Covid-19 are on a spectrum of early adapters, as well as those who are slower in adapting to change. 
Covid-19 and the ensuing pandemic as well as the other issues confronting the nonprofit sector require focus, leadership, and innovative thinking as this might be the only way that the sector remains strong and vibrant. Agile systems and agile leadership has an important role to play in strengthening and rebuilding nonprofits and enabling them to remain mission driven and sustainable. 

Any final closing thoughts you’d like to share with other nonprofits considering how to adopt Agile principles or Sprints into their way of working?
Any nonprofit organization interested in the Agile principles and practices should take the time to fully understand the framework. I would recommend organizations to work with your team to identify the kinds of resources available that can help them build that knowledge and expertise necessary and also take advantage of any training opportunities. 
Agility as a framework has tremendous potential. You may already be practicing agility so the question might be what else can you do to deepen your involvement to take full advantage of what Agility offers. 
Nonprofits tend to be cautious about new ideas and might even think agility is just another fad. So, it is important to be intentional and look at the challenges your organization is facing for which organizational agility might provide some answers and possibilities. 
Thank you both for this opportunity to share information about the Sanford Institute of Philanthropy and my thoughts regarding agility in the nonprofit  space.


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This blog is an original work of the attributed author and is shared with permission via Foundant Technologies' website for informative purposes only as part of our educational content in the philanthropic sector. The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this text belong solely to the author and do not necessarily reflect Foundant's stance on this topic. If you have questions or comments, please reach out to our team.


Photo by Maranda Vandergriff on Unsplash.

About the Author

Diane H. Leonard, GPC, RST, is a Grant Professional Certified (GPC) and Approved Trainer of the Grant Professionals Association. Diane is also a Registered Scrum Trainer and Scrum Master and is Scrum Product credentialed by the Agile Education Program powered by Scrum Inc. Diane began her career as a program officer for a statewide grantmaking organization. She continues to serve as a reviewer for a variety of grantmaking organizations. Since 2006, when she formed DH Leonard Consulting, Diane and her team have secured more than $92 million in competitive grant awards for their clients. She is an active member of the Grant Professionals Association. When not working with her team on clients’ grant applications, Diane can be found in the 1000 Islands, out for a run, or drinking a strong cup of coffee.

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