The Tale of the Turtle and The Rabbit
The core questions that small to medium sized non-profits confront are ones for which there are no ready answers, either within academia or in the field of practice. SSF’s approach, therefore, is very pragmatic: to look at each organisation on its own terms and focus on the next best set of actions to undertake in order to address some of these questions. It is a bottom-up, inside-out way of working with organisations.
SSF is careful not to interfere or intrude into the core developmental theory of change (or theory of action), if there is one, which each organisation closely identifies itself with and is built upon. It also does not insist on growth (or financial sustainability) for its own sake but only if they are important for strengthening the organisation's ability to enhance value without diluting or compromising its sense of purpose.
On a day to day basis, it involves working with select persons from the executive cadre across multiple functions to help them take decisions including, but not restricted to, governance, finance, accounts, legal form, organisation design & structure, professional development of individuals, communication & fund-raising strategies. This engagement happens through two primary means: participating in a variety of internal and external meetings; and solving tasks with individuals or small groups. Our participation in these processes is done for two reasons: to ensure decisions get made, and at the same time perspectives & skills of individuals get honed in the process.
In our assessment, this is our company's inherent skill and strength — our ability to minutely diagnose development sector organisations from a developmental, management and financial perspective; and subsequently work with them to improve their quality of decision-making, especially the following attributes of decision-making: consistency to purpose, proper sequencing, coherency, continuous synthesis and necessary attention to detail.
Typically, the feedback we have received from our clients till date is that they appreciate the honesty of our intent and forthrightness in our conversations which help them surface many unspoken, overlooked, or latent issues, risks and opportunities. By and large, we are able to share a high degree of trust and comfort with the leadership within our clients, and in some cases, across most levels of the organisation.
In our view, this is a result of the highly conservative approach we have chosen to adopt with our clients. We are particularly conscious of how are actions are being perceived, and have a bearing on, those with whom we may not directly work within the organisation. Our aim, always, is to be seen as someone who is truly vested (invested) in the long-term success of its clients rather than a largely professional advisor and consultant.
For someone wishing to practise this approach, we have identified few basic qualities necessary to pull OD through:
Rather than apply available frameworks, the ability to build one afresh for a given organisation through a process of critical questioning (what, why, how) and the ability to relate all decisions to this framework.
A deep conviction that small changes, if carried properly, can add up to a permanent and material change.
An aptitude to connect dots over time to build and reframe a mental model of the organisation.
A strong liking for designing and applying it to an organisational context and understanding how decisions actually can unknowingly affect organisational designs.
A basic grounding in accounts and ability to study & manage organisations from a stand-alone financial perspective.
A personality that can relate to and converse with all types of persons in an organisation, and one that others may want to engage with.
A humble acknowledgement that more often than not, the answers to questions reside within the organisation itself. The challenge is to frame the right questions at the right time to tease out this body of knowledge.
Implications of our work for other stakeholders
The approach outlined above forms the heart of our work. But a continuous, slow-paced and long-term engagement offers a powerful tool: an ability to invest at the margin in an organisation.
Being deeply involved in OD-related work allows us to have a view on what are funding needs at a much finer level in contrast to the large information asymmetry (the agency problem) that confronts a typical donor. This places us at a sweet spot to advise donors on where and how they can allocate capital. We have therefore also launched a related initiative called ‘Fund for Inclusive Growth’ (FIG) that aims to promote the idea that small and regular amounts of capital can go a long way in nurturing an enduring institutional development of a not-for-profit. Please refer to the corresponding section in the website.
Similarly, we also have a front-seat view on what additional professional skills are required at the organisation and to structure engagement of professionals accordingly. As we continue to spend more and more time with our clients, we are bound to find more such possibilities of weaving in different strands into the core OD work.
As we continue to grow our portfolio of clients and our tenure of engagement with some of them, we are bound to provide a stable platform for many other resources to engage at the margin through us, including academia.