These principles, if properly understood and practiced without reservation, can take an organization that is simply maintaining the status quo and move them toward a thriving and prosperous condition, and closer to accomplishing their mission.
1. Everything has a shelf life.
To understand the first principle, we must look to physics. The Laws of Thermodynamics are more complex than I am going to state it here, but I think I have the jest of it. The first laws states that there is no new energy and that all energy is borrowed. In other words, the natural world is just recycling the same energy. Because of that reality, the Second law states that if there is no new energy in a system, it dies. Entropy is the term they use in physics.
So, how do these two scientific laws relate to nonprofits?
It means everything in the natural world has a shelf life. Even something inorganic like an organization, requires energy to be sustained. It needs money, resources, and human capital like labor and creativity. If an organization spends more energy than it brings in, it starts the process of dying.
Every human idea, program, system, or organization will eventually die if there is no new energy coming into the system. All things have an expiration date. Ideas grow stale. Programs lose momentum. Organizations run out of visionary energy. If there is no new ideas, new momentum, new vision added to it, there is death.
More and more I am struck by an increasing awareness of the impermanence of everything. It's a universal truth that I am learning to embrace. All things have a shelf life. Everything has an expiration date. Things get old, fall apart, stop working, die, or just become useless. There is absolutely nothing that is not in the process of perishing or changing.
Inanimate things like fashion become dated, fads die out. Even ideas can become old and moldy. Concepts and models lose their freshness and become stale. Yet we often carry on as if nothing has changed, resistant to the inevitable march of time. Despite the obvious, we hang onto to these things anyway, perhaps because we’re emotionally attached, or because we mistakenly believe we can tweak this or change that and revive their newness. But, everything has a season, a time and purpose for everything under the sun. Change is the one and only universal constant.
If an organization, like a nonprofit or church, goes into maintenance mode, if they go on defense instead of offense, they are already dead. They just don’t know it yet. It’s just a fact of life, and I think we can all readily recognize it, but for some reason, leaders of organizations either forget it, or deny, and just keep marching on right to the same old beat - all the way to the grave.
2. The simple is false and the complex is unusable.
By unusable, I mean - unsustainable. Some know this principle as the Complexity Paradox.
Here’s what generally happens when a program or organization starts dying (actually it probably started dying a long time ago, but the leadership has finally recognizes it). When they finally get a grasp of what is happening to the organization, they are tempted by the Complexity Paradox. They want to describe the problem in the simplest terms possible, but they try to fix it with the most complex schemes and plans imaginable.
So, how should leadership respond?
Organizational leaders need to do just the opposite. They need to comprehend the complexity of the problem. That takes research, study, time, and a diversity of different perspectives. If they don’t, they are going to miss the mark when it comes to really understanding it. But when they really do understand the problem or the need and attempt to solve it, they need to make the solution as easy and simple as possible.
The more complex anything is, the more opportunity there is for failure. As automobiles have gotten more complex, for example, there is more opportunity for something to break down or not work properly. And, because they are more complex, it requires the expert, and generally a lot more money.
For an organization trying to build a program to address a certain problem or meet a certain need, the more complex the program, the greater the possibility something is not going to work right. All actions have unintended consequences. The more complex a solution is the greater the chance for unintended consequences.
The Affordable Healthcare Act, also known as Obama Care is a good example. The designers thought the problem of health care was simple. They believed it stems from a lack of universal coverage. The solutions ended up being not so simple. It contained thousands of pages and with so many moving parts to the legislation that the whole thing now looks like it will collapse under the weight of it’s own complexity. It's a plan created by experts and requires experts to maintain it. That's how people make money in today's service economy. No one makes money in a simple, common sense plan, so they make it complicated on purpose.
3. You can do anything, but you can’t do everything.
The “you” in this principle can apply to an individual or group or an organization. They can do anything they put their minds and energy to but they can’t do everything. With enough time and resources, anything is possible. Philippians 4:13 says, "I can do all things through Him who strengthens me." All things here means anything but never does the Bible suggest we can do everything. Only God can do everything. No amount of time or resources can an individual, group, or organization do everything.
So, is this principle only true if there is enough time and resources?
Time is the only real currency. It is the most precious resource we have. To waste time is a grievous sin. Ephesians 5:16 says "Make the best use of the time, because the days are evil." In our service society particularly, money is time. If we have enough money we can buy more time and resources. Finding those two essential elements is a topic for another day. For now though, we need not only to understand, but also believe, that a nonprofit can do anything it puts its energy toward, but they can’t do everything.
The key is for the nonprofit to be absolutely clear about the one thing, the "anything" that they are going to do and forget about all the rest. Since time and resources are an issue, organizations and the people in them must determine what is their best and greatest use of their time. Once they have determined that, then the next principle applies.
4. What you focus on improves and expands.
What you focus on grows by either improvement or by expansion, and usually both. It gets better and it gets bigger. I think everyone should understand why getting better and bigger is important to the health and well being of a nonprofit. I like the way Peter Drucker explains it, "Keep your eye on the task, not on yourself. The task matters, and you are a servant."
So, why does it matter?
I'm convinced the main reason many churches and nonprofits are dying today is because they have fallen into a very common organizational trap. They have become convinced that their existence is tied to a model of service instead of a mission to service.
Every organization arises from a mission – feed the poor, educate children, preach the gospel, etc. Early on organizations adopted some model or method for accomplishing their mission. If that model or method worked then they were successful and the organization grows. The problem is that everything has a self life; all things have an expiration date, including every model and method of service. When was the last time you saw an orphanage in the United States? Models change. Methods change. But Mission never does.
Focusing on that one thing, that anything we know we can do, channels the energy into that. Not only is it an organizational principle, it is a life principle. Good or bad, what you focus on grows. In other words, energy flows to where attention goes. If you focus on the negative, the destructive will grow. If you focus on the positive, the constructive will grow. If you focus on righteous things, virtuous things will grow. If you focus on immoral things, wicked things will grow. It’s simply a fact of life.
What you dwell on determines your destiny because what you focus on sets the boundaries of your existence. You become what you think about and what you pay attention to. The question then to ask yourself today is this, what are you focusing on? What has your attention? What are the issues or things you are concentrating on? Is there something you want to increase? If so, then make that the emphasis of your thoughts and see what happens.
Stephen Covey says, "the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing." It’s all about the mission. What is the reason for being? What is that one thing the nonprofit is meant to do? Be clear about that and then do it with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.
Ecc. 9:13 says, "Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going."
5. Change your thinking, change anything. Change their thinking, change everything.
Our entire ministry at Patrick Henry Family Services is built on a foundational belief that a person will change when their thinking changes. In the life of any organization it's also true. A dying organization will have to change its thinking and if it changes its thinking , it can change anything and it can change anything because - it can do anything.
If something is no longer working, it isn’t usually a matter of trying harder or doing more. It often is about changing the way the issue is being thought about. People get stuck with faulty paradigms - which are certain way to think about something. Remember though, everything has a shelf life, even paradigms. The question struggling nonprofits need to ask themselves, “What faulty paradigms are leading us to bad decisions?”
Often, the first place leaders of nonprofits need to look for a solution to a problem is how they are thinking about that problem or how are they thinking about the solutions they’ve been trying. I like how Colossians 3:8 states it, “Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the traditions omen, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ.”
Remember the first principle. Everything human thing has a shelf life. Philosophies and traditions of men die. Principles that work in this world will die in this world. It is only knowing the mind of Christ that is eternal. Meanwhile, those of us in charge of nonprofits must come to grips with the fact that ways of doing things, that once worked for us, eventually stop working and we must adapt to that reality. When we change our thinking, we can change anything.
So, what about the second part of that principle?
If a nonprofit can change the way they think, they can do anything. If a nonprofit can change the way others think, they can change everything. For example, Henry Ford and Wright brother changed everything in the transportation world when they changed how others thought about what is possible. Before the Wright brothers, most of the world thought human flight was impossible.
A nonprofit or a church that can change the way people think, will have the power to change everything in this world. I’m convinced that there are answers and solutions to every human need and problem in the world. Every one. No exception. We just have to change the way we, and others, think about them.
6. Wet board's conduct electricity, but copper wires do it better.
This principle describes the value of effectiveness and efficiency. The mission of a nonprofit requires time and energy. There is simply no way around it. Every nonprofit requires resources. Increasing effectiveness and efficiency maximizes and uses the most of those limited assets.
Some are tempted to think that effectiveness and efficiency are conflicting goals, that you can’t maximize both at the same time, that one must surrender to the other. However, that is a faulty paradigm that leads to bad decisions.
Nonprofits want to be effective and they need to be efficient. Doing both ensure the greater likelihood that resources will continue to come their way. Effectiveness means doing the right things. Efficiency means doing things right.
So, what does that really mean?
Wet boards can conduct electricity but a copper wire does it better. Using a board to conduct electricity, while possible, is not the right thing to do, nor is it doing things right. Get both of those thing in proper alignment and the expiration date gets pushed out to a later date, the shelf life increases, we hold off death a little while longer.
7. Together we can do more than the total sum of us individually.
It's simply the principle of teamwork. There's no substitute for teamwork. Synergy forms when individuals work together that actually create greater output than all of them do as individuals. It defies math. We all know that 1+1=2. But when individuals work together in a synergistic relationship, 1+1 can equal more than 2.
In sports or the business world, they call it the "big Mo", the big momentum. It can’t really be explained but it has been observed enough to know that it is a real phenomenon. It’s not magic, but it sometimes looks like it. Some call it chemistry, others call it being in the grove. The name doesn’t matter as much as getting in that spot does. For a nonprofit, it can make a good organization great. It can also mean the difference between surviving and thriving.
So, is there a larger application?
If teamwork gets things done in one nonprofit, imagine what would happen if nonprofits worked together as a team to meet needs and solve problems. Imagine if churches cooperated together to the lost in their community.
Listen to how it worked in an ancient nonprofit group called the early church. Acts 4;32-33, "Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common…. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all."