The chicken came first and then the egg, according to Britishscientists. I’m relieved to know the answer to Chickthat age-old question. But there is another question just as vexing for nonprofits (and all organizations, for that matter). Which should they do first: improve the way the organization is managed, or clarify the goals and intended outcomes of the organization?

This question is explored in The Chronicle of Philanthropy interview that Hildy Gotlieb (founder of the Community-Driven Institute and author of The Pollyanna Principles: Reinventing Nonprofit Organizations to Create the Future of Our World) did with Jan Masoaka, editor of the online magazine Blue Avocado.  According to Masoaka, former Executive Director of CompassPoint, a leading California-based consulting and training firm for nonprofits, better management of organizations doesn’t necessarily lead to higher impact. She says,“Instead of asking what do we want to be doing we should be asking who is our constituency and what do they want us to do right now.” She goes on to say that leaders should be asking themselves, “What kind of leader does this organization need me to be right now?” And board members should be asking themselves, “What kind of board member does this organization need me to be right now?” The answers to all of these questions will change over time and depend on the impact that is needed at a particular point in time. 

I, too, see many nonprofits that put all their time, energy, and money into the latest and greatest management fad without having a clear sense of the impact they are seeking. Occasionally, organizations need to step back from their day-to-day practices and ask themselves, “Is that what our clients/customers/constituencies need us to be doing right now?” It’s Chris Argyris’ and Donald Schon's “double-loop learning”. It’s listening to the people we serve, not to ourselves. It’s first being clear about the impact we want to have (and how we will measure that impact) and then improving management to achieve those goals.