Stories about nonprofit organizations—particularly the ones they tell themselves—tend to focus on their scrappy beginnings, near-death experiences, big wins, and marquee moments that lace annual reports with the glow of valor.
Yet in hewing to an assumed logic of success, these stories often overlook the most critical element of the NGO life cycle: Periods of transition—a change in leadership, a shift in strategic focus, the loss of a longtime funder. These times are marked by great uncertainty—even fear—because they diverge from a predictable arc of growth and a reliable, heroic narrative. As a colleague once advised me when I was an executive director, “The true test of organizations is not how they grow, but how they shrink.” Indeed, transitions are an acute test of an organization’s vision and capacity. This is exactly why they have so much to teach.
One reason nonprofits downplay transitions is that they see them as evidence of weakness. Some fear they risk revealing fissures and points of friction that board members and senior leadership would rather keep in house, and tamped down at that. But uncertainty does not necessarily portend failure. Unquestioned assumptions about what transitions mean (and about what constitutes failure) can blind organizations to their value. Understanding and documenting difficult times—not just to satisfy a story, but to mine them for critical insights and lessons—can strengthen institutions over the long term.
One of the most important parts of telling these untold stories is finding people who can tell them, and providing them with the resources to do so. Organizations naturally build institutional memory over the years, through the collective experience of the individuals engaged in them. It is already there, we only need ask. Yet, documenting this knowledge is widely considered a luxury, a box to be checked off in an exit interview. Institutional memory is particularly vulnerable during periods of transition, with restructuring and changes in staff. The clock is always ticking.
How does your organization think about its institutional memory? Have you found a way to capture it? What are some of the questions and challenges that come up for you? Let us know. Email Thomas at email@example.com or tweet him at @thomasbrendler.