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The Art of Adaption Overview for Boards and Executive Staff

Finding a path to travel on a journey to adapt to the new environment of the knowledge driven economy requires more courage than previous shifts. We need a better understanding of the shifting plates on which organizations inhabit the earth. Permit me to suggest that there are three pillars in the Art of Adaption:

  1. Curiosity
  2. Being an Action Visionary, and
  3. Sustainability

Why do organizations and CEOs need to adapt? Adapt to what? In the 21st Century ecosystem, where economic, social, demographic, and technology are permanently invading the climate and culture, we need to recognize the impact on our institutions. Darwin said, “It Is NOT the Strongest of the Species that Survives, but the Most Adaptable.” Our organizations very sustainability, our existence requires us to make sure that we learn the lessons of all living things. Learn how to adapt or slowly but surely become extinct. This is true for not only the organization, but particularly for the CEO. The climate is different and our programs, operational practices, and visioning needs to adapt to the new environment in which we exist.

Association CEOs and Board Chairs are facing the challenge of courage over tradition and short-term thinking over sustainability. Today, we are confronted with an extraordinarily fast-changing social, economic, political, and technological environment. Whether here in the United States or across the globe we must come face-to-face with the reality of a more complex and interdependent environment. While paradigm shift has been underway for several decades, associations have been slow to heed its warnings. Like all operational and cultural shifts it takes some time for them to be fully appreciated and accepted. Far too often we are relying on quick fixes. These fixes include: software over strategic technology development, tactics over strategy, and outmoded governance structures. Current governance structures are a particularly difficult problem. Today, many structures are more akin to the outgoing industrial age and lack the necessary vision of an evolving knowledge driven society.

Organizations must learn to adapt whether they are individual member driven institutions, trade organizations, or foundations. It is not that times are changing, it is that times have changed!

The obstacles to making this transition are not to be underestimated. Some of these obstacles sound like the same things that inhibited more sustainable development in years past. These include: time, gaining trust within the organization, including its executive and board leadership, staff, and volunteer groups. The sheer volume of information and help groups available to try to balance this challenge against the status quo may not be providing the in-depth process development that the new environment requires. Courageous leadership will be necessary on this journey. Add huge shifts in demography, demographics, the economy, social changes, and the accelerated speed with which they occur and we face the need for new models and processes, better thinking, and reflection on the standard practices that have brought us to this place.

Providing data fairly presented to governance and staff that broadens their perspective roles and responsibilities against the traditions and often the well-meaning desire to preserve the status quo against the tumultuous changes may be an uncomfortable role for the executive, but clearly required. The level and need for meaningful data and the analytical tools and skills to use that data to support responsible understanding and predictions about the future is sorely lacking in most of our associations and foundations. At least in the foundation world the idea of understanding and predicting donor behavior is more common place. Unfortunately, throughout the individual member and trade organizations, this level of analytical skill, data collection, and foresight is less operational.

Recognizing that we live in a much more complex environment that moves knowledge and opinion at the click of a mouse is uncomforting while at the same time reality. Our planning savvy is inhibited by old methods and the uncomfortable knowledge that many plans put on paper are never given the light and fertilizer of actualization in the daily operations of our organizations. Organizations are stymied by a whirlwind of daily tasks and functions which substitute for being an action visionary and building a sustainable future for the institution’s mission. And while it is unlikely to quickly and dramatically change in the short term, internal organizational jargon, as well as consultant jargon, may have a tendency to dance in the ballroom of past successes rather than the dreams and actualization of the futures we face.

There is a long arc on which these pillars hold up the organizations of the future. These pillars are not silos, but rather an interdependent flow through a multi-year journey. They must operate with both focus and agility to build success. Each pillar requires the interplay of curiosity, action visioning, and sustainable development. One without the other is not a path to success.

The following pictorial is a summary of the three pillars:

Pillar ONE – Curiosity (The Learning Pillar)

  • Learning to ask powerful questions
  • Acknowledging the ecological changes associated with demographic, economic, technological, and social changes
  • Staying in turn with the organizational and mission specific literature
  • Providing uncomfortable data, fairly presented to governance and staff, that broadens their perspective role, responsibility, and insight
  • Learning new analytical skills which promotes a reasoned approach to the complexities of modern society

Pillar TWO – Action Visionary (The Balance Pillar)

  • Strategy First
  • Technology as Strategy
  • Facing Uncomfortable Truths
  • A Governance Model for the future
  • Creating a shared understanding of the issues on which to build partnerships, alliances, and drive a forward thinking agenda
  • Planning savvy
  • Recognizing the speed of change and its impact on the new ecology of work and mission

Pillar THREE – Sustainability (The Power Pillar)

  • Capacity and Confidence Building
  • Meaningful Measurement
  • Optimization
  • Long-Term Development
  • Technology integration
  • Fiscal Strength

Future posts will explore the depth of each pillar, and the processes and learning required to seek the many futures that the new environment will force us to adapt too or be diminished.

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More Non-profit technology for non-technologist – AI – Home !

It is important for the association community that non-technologist executives take a stronger and more proactive role in assimilating multiple technologies into the day-to-day operations of their associations. I write about technology not because I’m a technologist, but precisely because I am not.

In earlier posts, I ask non-technologists not to fear technology, but to view it as strategy rather than simply tactical applications. As we approach the changing ecology in which the work of associations is actualized, the non-technologist executive must learn enough to ask the right questions, respectfully invest in technology, and bring the association community forcefully forward in the utilization of increasingly advanced technology.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is an area that deserves thought and experimentation within the association community. No doubt many of us use Siri, Alexa, or Google Home Assistants. We watch in amazement as Amazon uses behavioral algorithms that consider and adapt to our likes and dislikes, while the association community is generally setting back on its hands. These are current examples of the impact of AI on our daily lives. You may be familiar with Elon Musk who launched a not-for-profit artificial intelligence research company, Open AI – – with a clear understanding that we must be careful about artificial intelligence yet open to how it may possibly improve the social sector.

Association executives cannot isolate themselves from the potential that artificial intelligence brings to the not-for-profit social good community. While the for-profit community is investing heavily in various forms of AI the not-for-profit community has barely begun to accept its responsibility in utilizing multiple forms of technology including advancements in artificial intelligence as a tool for good.

The association community, particularly its top executives, must learn enough to educate their boards, themselves, and their teams to invest responsibly in learning about and utilizing of AI and other rich forms of technology. We must speak about it. We must learn about it. We must promote it. We must invest in it.

It is time to ask an array of important questions about ourselves and the significant potential that AI brings to our ability to achieve our missions, become increasingly more sustainable, and determine opportunities to integrate AI for the long-term.

Here are a few questions:

  • Can we convert the large amount of information that we currently collect on our members, our disciplines, and our cause, and have that information converted into actionable data in support of our mission and goals?
  • What is the level of investment in learning about technologies, including AI, which we as association executives should take to heart and mind?
  • Can AI lead to enhanced capacities?
  • In our community, is AI a potential personnel enhancement?
  • Will AI make us more action oriented and less risk adverse?

Of course, there are many more questions, but these should help us begin this essential dialogue.

On June 27, 2017, association contrarian Jeff De Cagna of Foresight First LLC is presenting a briefing on AI for association decision-makers. You can find Jeff on LinkedIn and you can register for the briefing at This is a great opportunity for association boards and CEOs to learn more about the importance of AI and its growing impact on associations.

If you have thoughts on the subject or the importance of the non-technologist in bringing the association community to grips with the significance of technology in their operations and sustainable thinking, please let me know. I can be reached at:

It is important to be an action visionary, not just a visionary. ET asked to go home, not to just envision home. Learning the value of AI is a step in the direction of our new home. One where AI and other technologies enjoy being at home with us and we embrace their presence.