July 30, 2012

Why Today's Challenges Require Nonprofits to Be Nimble

Book cover of Resilience, by Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy

To tackle problems in a rapidly changing world, nonprofits need to adopt a new mind-set, one that emphasizes improvisation, ad hoc networks, and adaptation, says Andrew Zolli, executive director of PopTech, a New York charity focused on innovation, and co-author of a new book, Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back.

Because the world has entered a period of “extraordinary volatility” and the problems society faces are increasingly complex, he argues, figuring out why some individuals, organizations, and systems are resilient in the aftermath of a crisis while others are not is paramount.

“We're all ballroom dancing in the minefield,” says Mr. Zolli.  “In an environment like that, we have to be able to prepare our companies, our communities, our organizations to be able to deal with those disruptions. And that is a different agenda that we have had, even in the recent past.”

Riots Over Tortilla Prices

In the book, Mr. Zolli and his co-author, Ann Marie Healy, point to massive protests in Mexico City over the price of tortillas as an example of how complicated and interconnected modern problems have become.

In January 2007, the price of corn was 400 percent higher than it had been just three months before. But the reason for the spike wasn’t a failed crop or price fixing, as some of the protesters suspected. A year and a half before, Hurricane Katrina shut down oil production on the Gulf Coast, and the resulting jump in the cost of gasoline increased demand for ethanol, an alternative fuel made from corn. Farmers, in turn, switched from edible corn crops to inedible varieties used to make the fuel, which pushed up the price of corn used to make tortillas.

“We are connecting systems in ways that we don't understand until they fall apart,” says Mr. Zolli.

'Hacked-Together Technology'

Photo of Andrew Zolli Andrew Zolli (Photo by Heather Phelps-Lipton)

At the same time, he says, volatility—in the form of terrorism, economic crisis, geopolitical instability, and climate change—is making it harder, if not impossible, to forecast coming shocks.

“When you find a resilient response to a problem, what you typically find is not one formal institution or one nonprofit executing a response that they had cooked up beforehand,” says Mr. Zolli. “You find bits of organizations and social networks and individuals and independent actors and hacked-together technology platforms. What you find is a lot of improvisation.”

A real-world example: a volunteer effort that collected, translated, and mapped more than 100,000 text messages asking for help sent by survivors of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

The effort was started by Ushahidi, a nonprofit technology group that had built a system to map where crises were erupting in the wake of election violence in Kenya several years earlier. But the response quickly took on a life of its own, involving volunteers around the world, multiple nonprofits, first responders in Haiti, and others.

One of the most remarkable steps in the project’s rapid development came when a Twitter follower in Cameroon put one of the organizers in touch with an executive at Haiti’s largest mobile carrier, who was instrumental in setting up the short code survivors used to submit their messages.

Learning to Improvise

Mr. Zolli worries that the transition to a future that requires fluid responses to unexpected problems will be tough for a lot of charities.

“Most nonprofits are not very good at improvising,” he says. “They do one thing, and they're rewarded for doing one thing, one way for a long time. So it can be hard for them to update their programming to create a culture that rewards improvisation and risk taking.”

But with institutions like IBM, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the World Bank focusing increasing attention on resilience, charities can expect to hear a lot more about the concept in years to come, says Mr. Zolli: “It's all a conversation about how do you build systems that can take a punch.”

Go deeper: Listen as Mr. Zolli tells the story of how Hancock Bank, in Gulfport, Miss., improvised in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in a way that helped residents during a very difficult time—and improved the bank’s fortunes.

Send an e-mail to Nicole Wallace.