Building the Plane While We Fly It: 5 Ways for Nonprofit Leaders to Successfully Land in 2022

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By Tarsha Whitaker Calloway

I seem to find myself in roles where I must build the plane as I fly it. Building programs in the nonprofit sector has been my niche, doing while producing real-time financial and organizational results is my expertise. Having to do it during a world crisis is my newfound skill. In my previous roles, I have used the phrase, “We’re building the plane while we fly it,” as part of my mantra and to set expectations for my team. Initially, I thought it was a professionally acceptable way to say, “We have no idea. We’re making it up as we go and we will get there with a solid outcome,” but most recently I realized what it means, and I discovered why it is a good line of thinking in the current landscape for nonprofit leaders.

This phrase is a cliche of Silicon Valley that initially referred to iterating software development. Instead of perfecting the software before shipping, this phrase summarizes a different approach — ship it, fix it, ship it again. Since then, this metaphor has been used to describe infrastructure, growing industries, the education system, the financial landscape, and this new normal for nonprofit leadership. The nonprofit community had to figure out how to navigate this environment in the backdrop of a pandemic, racial unrest, economic uncertainty — while keeping the plane moving, figuratively.

There is no doubt that navigating through projects that have not been completed before, have no playbook or robust processes behind them to pave the road or have a big-time vision, but no blueprint of how to make that vision become a reality come with their own set of challenges, roadblocks and mental breakdowns. However, those projects also come with a massive list of positive outcomes. Nonprofit leaders have always built planes while flying them.

Unfortunately, it is part of how nonprofits typically work.. We all have our stories; we all have experienced disappointments and successes. As nonprofit leaders, we have moved through this crisis by making decisions, reviewing our decisions and then making new decisions.

We move between leadership and management on a regular basis. And we understand that all leaders manage but that not all managers are leaders. This becomes even more apparent during a crisis, especially when we must lead as we manage in an uncommon landscape and things are moving very fast. We must continue to think about our leadership as we manage the crisis of the past. In short, leaders are not forged in crisis; rather, crisis reveals leadership, and it is our goal to learn how to navigate.

Here are some components nonprofit leaders should take into consideration as they are landing their planes successfully on the other side of the last two years.

1. Act With Precision

As we reach the new normal, nonprofit leaders should be decisive and act. In the last two years, information changed by the hour, causing some people to want to postpone making decisions until they had all the facts. But now, months later, we still do not have all the answers. Nonprofit leaders need to identify our priorities, make decisions and forgive mistakes to prepare for the new normal that post-pandemic has to offer.

2. Adapt to the New Normal

In addition to acting, nonprofit leaders must adapt. The world is moving differently and while leaders are gaining information, they must also look at how to adjust their programs and services to fit the current environment. To adapt, remain grounded in your mission, understand your resources and let go of preconceived notions. What your organizations have done in the past may not work. How you have previously approached problems may not help in the current environment. Nonprofit leaders should recognize these changes and gather their teams together to brainstorm ideas.

3. Communicate Effectively

Communication is key in this post-pandemic situation, and it is more critical than ever. Nonprofit leaders need to make sure the lines of communication are clear and effective, from the cockpit to the back of the plane. To communicate well, nonprofit leaders should understand with whom they are communicating and what the concerns are. Make sure your communication includes all stakeholders — board of directors, donors, staff and the community.

Information travels fast, so make sure all your stakeholders receive important information directly from you.

4. Focus on the Positive

In these post-pandemic times, nonprofit leaders should prepare for worst-case scenarios, but, at the same time, move past them and think of the positive. Some thoughts to consider are:

  • What will your organization learn from this?
  • How can this be an opportunity?
  • How will your organization experience be better in the future?

5. Analyze and Adjust

Some would suggest that the COVID-19 crisis is not over, but, as nonprofit leaders, we need to look back and adjust our plan. Be honest: What did not work well? That was a midcourse correction. Where do you need to correct? Get with your team and debrief about what has happened thus far. As nonprofit leaders we should accept responsibility and plan to do better. We are flying the plane that we built, but we can keep improving it while we fly. In addition, what changes have been made that you want to keep even when things are back to normal? What have been the benefits of this difficulty?

The pandemic is moving further away in the rearview mirror. We owe it to our organizations, our missions, our staff and ourselves to be the best leaders we can be. We do that by looking back and assessing our past behaviors, learning from them and growing. I cannot wait to see what this new normal looks like, but until then, be well, be safe and remember that building the plane while you fly it is OK. It is all in how we land the plane.

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