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Organizational sustainability


NGOs operate in a complex, rapidly changing Macro- and Micro-Environment.

Developing its organizational adaptability will help an NGO to deal with these dynamic conditions.


The activities involved in the process of developing adaptability will increase an organization´s ability and readiness to:

  1. Make internal adjustments to trends and emerging issues in the organizational environment at an early stage.
  2. Cope better and recover quicker from high-impact events.
  3. Survive through difficult times.
  4. Take advantage of an opportunity when it occurs.
  5. Influence some components of the environment in the organization´s favor.
  6. Achieve change in an effective and efficient way.


Developing adaptive capacity involves the same basis steps as developing the organizational capacity (graphic 1).


Graphic 1:         Developing adaptive capacity


Identifying deficits in adaptability

A NGO could either use a ready-made assessment tool or design an assessment based on its specific needs.

The assessment will focus on establishing to what extend those abilities are already in place that an adaptive organization should have.


Determine capacity gaps by means of an assessment tool

The assessment tool designed by the M.Casey Foundation assesses adaptive capacity under the following headings:

  • Strategic planning.
  • Evaluation / Performance Measurement.
  • Evaluation & Organizational Learning.
  • Use of research data to support program planning & advocacy.
  • Program relevance & integration.
  • New program development.
  • Monitoring of program landscape.
  • Assessment of external environment & community needs.
  • Influencing of policy-making.
  • Partnership & alliances.
  • Community presence and standing.
  • Constituent involvement.
  • Organizing.


Design your own assessment of organizational adaptability

You could alternatively design your own assessment focusing on different abilities:

  • Ability to recognize threats and opportunities at an early stage.
  • Ability to make adjustments quickly and being innovative.
  • Ability to influence the environment.
  • Ability to deal efficiently and effectively with the consequences of critical events and scenarios.


Developing organizational adaptability


Graphic 2:      Factors influencing organizational adaptability  


Action 1: Develop the ability to recognize threats and opportunities at an early stage

The organization should be able to

  • Scan and monitor the Macro-Environment.
  • Monitor and assess trends and emerging issues in the Macro-and Micro-Environment.
  • Analyze scenarios that the organization might face in the future.
  • Monitor performance.
  • Conduct organizational assessments on a regular basis.
  • Analyze your competitive environment on a regular basis.
  • Keep close contact with key stakeholders.
  • Cooperate and collaborate with other NGOs.

call to action


Action 2: Create supportive conditions inside the organization for change and innovation

Organizations that want to create conditions that support change and innovation should focus on

  • Leadership in strategic issues.
  • Knowledge, skills and attitudes of staff members.
  • Flexible processes, structures, policies and procedures.
  • Links between the organization and its environment.


a)    Employ staff with diverse personal features and experience and a positive mindset to change on all levels of the organization.

b)    Employ and develop leaders that see developing and maintaining adaptive capacity as a key organizational goal.

c)    Create awareness about the interdependence between your organization and the Macro- and Micro-Environment.

d)   Create an organizational culture which encourages

  • Open debate and thinking different from the norm.
  • Exchange of ideas and knowledge internally and with the outside world.
  • The development and testing of new ideas.
  • Proactive searching for information about developments that might impact the organization.
  • Learning (e.g. from others in the organization, from assessments, from good practices outside the organization).
  • Proactive change.
  • Teamwork.
  • Etc.

e)    Develop general and special management skills needed to adjust and innovate

  • Future research techniques.
  • Techniques that help to identify, analyze and solve problems.
  • Change management.
  • Knowledge management.
  • Risk management.
  • Crisis management.
  • Strategic Planning.
  • Etc.

f)    Provide resources for testing innovative ideas.

g)   Decentralize change processes (bottom-up instead top-down).

h)   Allow flexibility concerning how staff members achieve objectives.

i)    Provide incentives for staff to be flexible and innovative.

j)    Make use of the outside world to generate new ideas for your organization. 

k)   Try to avoid making decisions that reduce the ability to adjust when it´s needed

  • Long term labor contracts.
  • Long term leasing contracts.
  • Specialized production facilities.
  • Specialized products and services.
  • Etc.

l)   Diversify and balance your sources of income

  • Type of income (e.g. earned income, donation, grant).
  • % share of any type in total income.
  • % share of any source (e.g. donor, grant maker, client) in total income.


Action 3:   Get prepared for critical events and scenarios

  • Assess how events and scenarios will impact the organization.
  • Analyze case by case how far you should/could get prepared.
  • Develop plans that describe what has to be done in a crisis situation and how to recover quickly.
  • Simulate crisis situations regularly to make employees aware of their role and increase readiness to act quickly.


Action 4:  Implement activities that might help to influence the environment in your favor

I will discuss this topic in more detail on another webpage.


Sources / Guide to further reading (available online)

Sussman, Building adaptive capacity,at: http://www.systemsinsync.com/pdfs/Building_Adaptive_Capacity.pdf

V.Timmer, Agility, Adaptive Capacity and the Organizational Effectiveness of International Nongovernmental Organizations, at: http://userpage.fu-berlin.de/ffu/akumwelt/bc2005/papers/timmer_bc2005.pdf

M.Sorgenfrei, R.Wrigley, Building Analytical and Adaptive Capacities for Organisational Effectiveness, at: http://www.dochas.ie/pages/resources/documents/adaptive_capacity.pdf

P.York, Organizational effectiveness, the four core capacities, at: http://www.nhnonprofits.org/uploads/4corecapacitites.pdf

Gary Hamel, Outrunning change – the CliffsNotes version, at: http://blogs.wsj.com/management/2009/10/21/outrunning-change-the-cliffsnotes-version/

Gary Hamel, Outrunning change – the CliffsNotes version (part II), at: http://blogs.wsj.com/management/2009/11/13/outrunning-change-the-cliffsnotes-version-part-ii/

M.Casey. Organizational Capacity Assessment tool, at: http://www.caseygrants.org/pages/resources/resources_downloadassessment.asp

S.McManus et al, Resilience Management, at: http://www.resorgs.org.nz/pubs/Resilience%20Management%20Research%20Report%20ResOrgs%2007-01.pdf