CIOs showing the way to agility in non-profits

As part of our series on the role of CIOs and tech trends for International Development Organisations (IDOs) and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), this article explores the importance of agility in the sector and how CIOs can drive it.

The importance of agility for non-profit organisations

A mantra of our time is agility: in today’s uncertain and fast-paced world, organisations need to be agile, able to adapt to changing environments, fail fast, and innovate faster. However, crisis situations like the war in Ukraine and the COVID-19 pandemic have reminded the world that agility is not only about ideating new products or programmes and launching them as quickly as possible, but above all, it’s about being ready to adapt and act in unexpected situations. And this is often the typical scenario in which humanitarian and development organisations operate.

The recent agility trend originated in the world of software development. Agile software development methodologies, based on short development cycles, iteration, and cross-functional collaboration, became so successful that people outside the IT sector started to advocate the same principles. Some departments started to deliver work and projects in sprints, while others more generically advocated an agile organisational culture rooted in flexibility and speed of innovation in rapidly changing and uncertain environments.

The result: a lot of confusion around how to be agile and what it actually means. “Agile” is an umbrella term created in 2001 by a group of experienced project managers. It consists of a set of values and principles for software development. Different frameworks which follow these principles and core values may fall into the “agile” domain – and, nowadays, they are often adopted for projects outside the realm of software development. However, agile principles and practices can apply to more than projects: “business agility” is a new way of working and running an organization altogether.

In most sectors, however, organisations can rely on a certain level of structuredness in their agile processes – whether it’s based on sprints and retrospectives or on an ad-hoc way of streamlining operations. Everything, in the effort of fostering innovation to stay ahead of the competition.

However, for non-profits agility is not (only) about staying ahead of the competition. For them it is also a matter of responding quickly, saving lives, and supporting people locally in crisis situations. Natural disasters, wars, and epidemics are the bread and butter of organisations in the sector. And the stakes are high: not being agile can severely affect their operations and beneficiaries, resulting in everything from lost opportunities to lost lives.

How CIOs can drive agility in the non-profit sector

Although the concept of agility originated in the IT world, there is a need to extend it to the rest of the organisation, and CIOs are still uniquely positioned to drive this change, for two main reasons.

First, people throughout the organisation need the means and technologies to work in an agile way. Whether it’s project management software, collaboration tools or data platforms, the right technological support is what enables volunteers and field staff to take better decisions faster, identify the most critical areas for intervention, and coordinate the efforts of different stakeholders across geographies. The World Food Programme, for instance, relies on Early Warning Systems, a global supply chain network, and operational information management, to be prepared for emergencies and agile in response.

Technology is a key enabler of agility, and CIOs can play a pivotal role in identifying gaps in the current range of tools and rolling out new ones both at headquarters and local levels where challenges are different.

Second, CIOs can be the champions of agility throughout their organisations. They can foster agility in their own departments, resulting in faster ideation and implementation of projects, but also showcase the benefits of an agile culture outside of IT. The core precepts of agility, such as ‘failing fast’ and ’improvement through iteration’, are something that can benefit humanitarian and development organisations as a whole – not only in the form of greater operational efficiency, but also through greater employee satisfaction and retention of talent. In a world where about 30% of employee experience is rooted in technology and how technology empowers people, CIOs’ success at enabling people to work in an agile way, collaborating seamlessly, will result in higher employee satisfaction and, ultimately, a greater positive impact.

The challenges of agility in non-profits – and how CIOs can overcome them

Despite the importance of agility, the road to achieving it is not straightforward and there are some obstacles to overcome.

CIOs need to ensure that agility does not come at the expense of security and compliance. Implementing projects faster and rolling out MVPs over fully defined products or services does not mean compromising on the security of these solutions. Especially in the complex situations in which IDOs and NGOs often act, such as wars and natural disasters, and in dealing with vulnerable people, mistakes can be costly. CIOs in the sector can leverage their expertise and knowledge of complex scenarios to put security and compliance mechanisms in place, without restricting the organisation’s agility.

Another obstacle to building a new culture within an organisation is often resistance by people to change. This is particularly the case when the new culture is based on values that bring people out of their comfort zone, requiring them to act fast and embrace uncertainty instead of figuring out everything before implementing a solution or starting a project. In trying to foster an agile culture throughout non-profit organisations, CIOs may need to deal with people who see the changes as a criticism of their current ways of working and who are reluctant to embrace uncertainty and speed.

In addition to that, promoting agility without applying best practices may lead to ambiguity and to a lack of efficiency, threatening the credibility of agile methodologies and principles on the long run instead of making teams’ life easier.

CIOs can take several actions to mitigate these problems:

Overall, agility is essential for non-profit organisations. It is – and should be – their ’raison d’être’. It is essential for CIOs to ensure that the right technologies are there to support staff and volunteers in every kind of situation. But for this to become reality, agility cannot be treated as something that is valid only in emergency situations. CIOs need to plan ahead and advocate to embed this principle in the organisation’s culture and everyday operations. In this way, they will show their organisations the road to agility.

Thank you to Biancamaria Tedesco for her valuable contribution to this article.

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