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How Can Nonprofits Become Agile Learners?

MFG Archive, Opinion

In our latest viewpoints, Beth Kanter looks at some of the ways in which nonprofits can be more agile in their approach.



I read this wonderful article “Agility Is Today’s Most Critical Leadership Competency” by Julie Winkle Giuliani, author of “Watch Them Grow or Watch Them Go.”   Agility is defined in the dictionary as light and graceful or as a project management approach, but she defines agility as the ability for continuous learning and as a leadership competency in today’s complicated world.


The leadership qualities she identifies are what many of us have been described as networked leadership:


  •  Expansive, possibility-oriented thinkers, able to recognize patterns, connect dots, and see changing conditions before others do;


  • Collaborative, inclusive, and curious;


  • Able to act quickly, set new direction, make smart but fast decisions, and engage in focused experimentation; and


  • Equally comfortable improvising as necessary and also translating those improvised moves that worked into codified strategies, systems, processes and tools that help the organization continue to evolve.


Learning agility is valuable skill because it can help organizations get to better outcomes, especially when it becomes embedded into organizational culture and systems for continuous learning and improvement. The article describes ways that individuals can develop their learning agility muscle.


  • The Tension Between Getting It Done & Learning: With resource strapped nonprofits,  how to get it done efficiently as possible might get in the way of learning.    Yes, templates and codification is a good thing, but sometimes learning is about serendipity or taking that extra time to learn about a new topic or practice with a different method or tool.     I think you have to walk that tension between being efficient and checking it off your to do list with time to explore and learn.   Or else, your work becomes stale and boring — and you miss an opportunity to innovate.


  • Getting Feedback: According to the post, the best way to learn is to ask for feedback on your ideas or work process.  You have to truly value feedback, even if isn’t just an affirmation of your idea.  And,  in this day of social networks — feedback can come from a variety of sources and unsolicited.   So, I thought this matrix was highly useful to help sort out when to pay attention to feedback based on who the people who are offering it.


  • Getting Out of Your Comfort Zone: When you reach a certain level of expertise, you don’t have to think too much to get a project or task done.   So, trying something new is a risk – and takes more effort.  And, it might not be successful.  However, if you think of getting out of your comfort zone as a way to become an agile learner, the benefits outweigh the challenges. The article suggests that the skill of self-reflection is the secret sauce for learning how to become an agile learner.   How many of us allocate quiet time to reflect every day on what we learned and how we can build on that insight?   It is tempting to simply not do that because the pull of your task list is too strong.


What exactly is reflective practice and how do you do it?   There are many formal methods and individual and peer group practices, but my favorite is an agile method for reflective practice from Peter Bregman’s 18 Minutes A Day.   He describes a simple technique of taking 5 minutes every morning to write down 3 important tasks to accomplish and then reminding yourself every hour as to whether you have completed those tasks using your iPhone alarm.    And then reflecting at the end of the day for 5 minutes about what you accomplished.   I use this method along with a “To Done” journal to mine my experience for new insights.


Are you an agile learner?  How do you make sure that you are learning everyday as part of your nonprofit work?  What gets in the way of learning when working for a nonprofit?

Many thanks to Beth Kanter for her piece about agile learning. Be sure to follow her on Twitter at @Kanter!

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