3 Eye-Opening Conversations on Organizational Development

by Joan Garry

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Let me tell you about a conversation I had recently that left me completely gobsmacked. There’s this executive director who’s all about investing in her team. She knows that organizational development is the secret sauce to transforming her nonprofit into a powerhouse of positive change.

She shared with me how they assessed their organization to identify folks with leadership potential. And guess what? There was one person everyone agreed on—let’s call them Kai.

Kai, a Gen Z’er who’d been with the organization for just 18 months, seemed like the perfect candidate for growth. The executive director (a Gen X’er herself) passionately laid out her vision for organizational development, emphasizing the importance of investing in future leaders. She painted a vivid picture of Kai’s potential, assuring them that the organization was ready to support their professional development journey.

Kai’s response? “Thanks, but no thanks.”


This jaw-dropper (at least it was to me) is just one of a few conversations I’ve heard recently that inspired me to write about organizational development for nonprofits. 

What exactly does organizational development mean for nonprofit organizations, you ask? 

Organizational development is a critical and science-based process that helps organizations build their capacity to change and achieve greater effectiveness by developing, improving, and reinforcing strategies, structures, and processes.

Today we’ll look at the most prominent and arguably most neglected component of nonprofit organizational development: staff professional development.


So here’s a second conversation I had. See what you think.

I’m coaching a client who, in partnership with the board (YAY!), is building a succession plan across his organization and has asked for my help. The plan is to focus not only on the CEO but the leadership team as well. I suggest that it be framed more broadly than succession planning. First off, we all know where that conversation goes… the dreaded “What if Joan gets hit by a bus?” framing.

After all, succession planning is all about organizational development. It’s about building the capacity of your structures and processes and PEOPLE so that you can have greater impact. 

To that end, we are creating a framework for each of the CEO’s direct reports to assess their team and identify professional development opportunities so that we build capacity AND leadership AND retention within their teams. Who doesn’t want that? 

Jama. That’s who.

Jama is the Development Director reporting to the CEO and you see, Jama is a control freak boss who hires people who could never replace her. She thinks successful team members threaten her job’s security. And since their CEO can not secure Jama’s buy-in on a professional development budget for her team, they allocate the money elsewhere.


OK, conversation #3. Well, not really… because it’s not a single conversation but an entire chorus. 

I lead the Nonprofit Leadership Lab, an online membership site with training, support, and community for board and staff leaders of small-midsized nonprofits. It currently costs under $50/month. Do you know how many of the thousands of members we have who cannot get a budget approved with that line item and therefore pay out of their own pockets?



It’s very easy to find the common thread in all of this. Our sector does not understand just how vital investing in professional development is to the stability, sustainability, and impact of a nonprofit.

Let’s talk about how to change that.

Daniel Pink is an expert on the science of motivation. He teaches that the three core motivators for people in the workplace are autonomy, mastery, and purpose. The nonprofit sector can go ahead and check the “purpose” box automatically.

But how do you drive their motivation, their ability to excel, love their work, and ultimately your ability to retain them?

You invest in Pink’s other two motivators. 

First, let’s consider autonomy. I believe that strong management skills allow individuals to spread their wings so that they can have their own successes and feel proud of them.  

And then there is mastery. We all strive to feel that sense of accomplishment that comes when you write a great proposal, give a great board presentation, or have a real impact on the life of a client.

For the purpose of my advice, I’m going alliterative. Management and Mastery.

Here are a few steps you can take to market the importance of professional development to your nonprofit board and staff at all levels and all generations.

  1. Educate: Have your entire board watch Daniel Pink’s TED Talk
    Everyone has 18 minutes and it will align all of you around a common language.
  1. Market: Add “Organizational Development” to the agenda for your next board meeting
    In an executive session with the board, the E.D. offers the board a snapshot of the staff on only the two M’s. Offer context and bring gap skills to life.
  • Maya is a new staffer with limited work experience. She’s driven and passionate but doesn’t know a goal from an objective, a strategy from a tactic. We need to build that capacity in her — management 101.
  • Maya’s supervisor came from the private sector and has no prior nonprofit experience. He is a terrific corporate manager but it’s like he and Maya are speaking different languages. And while he is mission-driven, he talks more about KPIs than about our clients
  • Hassan was recently promoted and supervises three people. He has no previous supervisory experience. He leans toward micromanaging and his direct reports feel no sense of autonomy
  • Caleb has a few skill gaps that are impacting his performance and his job satisfaction. We really need to invest in his presentation skills — oral and written.

    What’s fascinating is that we never talk about these topics to our boards. We either sing the praises of our staff or we give them a heads-up that we are managing someone out. This will be a great conversation and your own examples will resonate with them.

    You won’t be able to give them a price tag (yet) but for the idea of investing in your team to take it from good to great? I believe you can get buy-in.
  1. Educate: Now have your entire staff watch Daniel Pink’s TED Talk
    Like a book club, make this a topic for a staff meeting. Give it real time. Get folks talking generally about the three motivators, where they think the organization is strong, where they are strong, and what an investment in the three motivators would look like.
  1. Design the Plan
    Not from the top down. Maybe a task force? Cross-functional / cross-level. Maybe generate the list of needs folks believe they have, where they see growth opportunities. Or maybe this is supervisor and employee. You’ll figure it out. Just please, if you are the E.D., don’t be the decider.
  1. Present the Plan
    Maybe there are several options and several price tags. Perhaps over two years. It would be nice if there was a combination of paid and pro bono support. And start this presentation by revisiting the three core motivators.
  1. Keep The Work Front and Center
    Toss this on team agendas, check-ins, and board meetings. Focus on the impact of the investment. Maybe Caleb is on the board agenda and crushes a presentation – a noticeable change and growth in a gap area.

Why do we not invest in organizational and professional development? Sometimes it’s because it is not valued and therefore if it’s in the budget at all, it gets cut quickly. Often we don’t because we present a need for a staff person. And maybe, just maybe, we come at the entire conversation from a place of scarcity and not abundance. We approach this with a deficit mentality.

Imagine if we talked about job satisfaction and retention…

What if we talked about taking our staff from good to great?

Look at an investment in autonomy and mastery with the vital purpose of your organization from this kind of holistic approach and your organization will be stronger and more impactful. And while you may be understaffed and under-resourced (let’s be honest, that’s the norm in our sector), you’ll retain a team each of whom really loves their work.

Give it some thought and consider developing a plan. 

I hope you’ll say