Work of meaning, purpose and direction – Agile Principles for Non-profit work

Credit: ID 144729341 ©TMarchev|


Non-profit work is in its essence about fulfilling a need or working towards a defined purpose for a people group or a cause. Volunteers join non-profits, because they are passionate about the cause; donors and grantholders support non-profits, because they come to believe in the vision; and most who take on paid jobs within non-profit organisations, do so with a conviction that the overall contributions compensate in purpose for the smaller salary they might receive compared to holding a for-profit job. Passion, vision and conviction are if not traits of all non-profits then at least traits of our shared idealized version of them. It takes creative energy, hope for the future and lots of hard work to continually serve and live up to the visions that in the beginning inspired the embarkments.

Applying an agile mindset to non-profit work, is to encourage and safeguard the passion, personal fulfillment and conviction of the early start-up phases of organizational formation. Many organisations (non-profit or for-profit) will most likely be able to see themselves or the early phases of their start-up in the descriptions of agile-lean approaches to work: teamwork, swift adaptability to changes, necessary transparency that builds up trust and a focus on listening to and incorporating feedback from both those benefiting from the organisation as well as those serving in it.  

Agile Lean Leadership is a framework built on agile values that supports the transformation from being a one team start-up to becoming a larger organization, while still maintaining a creative and sustainable culture, as well as a wholesome leadership mindset.

We truly believe and have experienced that the principles of Agile and the values inherent in Agile Lean Leadership are decidedly compatible with non-profit organisations, and it is our hope that some of the tools and ideas presented here may encourage these same organizations, supporting their quest to transform ideas into real change.

Necessary structure – Teams, Artefacts and Events

One of the strengths of much non-profit work is the appeal to emotional enthusiasm and personal drive. One of the potential risks is connected to that same strength – namely for the work to become disorganised as the emotional drive and momentum fluctuates. The following are some of the necessary constraints of structure that agile principles advise:

There is a general consensus – not only within agile – that when working with projects a Team approach is advisable. Ideas, innovation and work-drive all seem to be able to take on a life of its own in a good and wholesome team. Creating and developing such teams is not simple though; it requires time, a culture of openness and collaboration and most importantly perhaps that the focus and work is actually a goal for the whole team and that no systems that make team members competitors must exist. Reaching the goals, finishing the tasks at hand must credit and benefit the whole team. An absolutely necessary component in such a team is psychological safety.

Within agile and particularly the methodology of Scrum there is a focus on encouraging the creation of artefacts or documentation that makes the workflow and how prioritization is carried out, visible and transparent for all to see. If an organization is co-located there is no substitute for actual pen, posters and post-its. However, if the organization is large, not co-located or simply wishes to be able to be able to track and follow the progress for longer than post-its can stick to a wall, we recommend using our online tool agemba that has the full set of agile artefacts available for the whole organization (see

Transparency and openness have to be key aspects of any non-profit organization – in respect of both the people who invest time, in respect of the cause or people served, as well as to exhibit trustworthiness to those who support financially.

An agile approach to work also prescribes that certain Events are routinely held. These ensure a structure for recurring planning, as well as reviewing the completed work, retrospectives that evaluate the process and short daily meet-ups within the Team. The purpose of these events is to ensure direction, motivation and feed-back for the Team. They are also inherently connected to the formation of a production rhythm and learning cycle into the workflow, which is the focus of the following section.

Creating a cadence – working in iterations in order to minimize complexity and stay on course

An important element of implementing an agile mindset is to create a cadence, a rhythm through working in sprints or iterations – set time-frames. It is usually advised to create a rhythm of working in iterations of two, three or four weeks. The iterations are supported and upheld through the artefacts and events; the artefacts and visual illustrations show the team as well as the shareholders what the aim(s) of that particular sprint is, as well as how far the Team is in reaching those goals and finishing the tasks at hand. The Events mark the beginning and end of a sprint, as well as the continued planning and daily meet-up and reflection of progress. 

The argument for creating a structure of rhythm and learning for the projects and teams is two-fold. One is that only through a structured, visualised and verbalised focus on planning, learning and implementation can a culture of constant learning be created within an organisation. It is the people involved with the actual direct purpose of the organisation, involved with the users and “customers” that have the most valuable knowledge of what is important to the organisation and their feedback is therefore crucial.

The other argument for working in iterations has to do with the concept of complexity (read more here…). The level of complexity inherent in a project  is defined by the level of which it is actually possible to make long term precise fail-safe predictions of the outcome. The more ordered and simple the tasks and work, the easier it is to analyse and make clear-cut predictions, but the more innovative, multi-facetted, ‘real-life messy’ it is, the more you have to take complexity into your considerations when planning, because with complex work only fragmented knowledge is available and long-term, detailed up-front plans here have a tendency to not go as planned anyway.

It is our impression that most non-profit organisations often need to address issues in the “complex domain”. With these issues  a course of action is ideally arrived at through the cycle Dave Snowden calls “Probe, Sense and Respond”. Referring to a process that allows for experiments to be carried out in order to build up knowledge, making sense of the results and hopefully be able to actually “respond” to them.

Much work of course consists of both ordered and complex issues, so where possible, each iteration should aim to be a balance of complex and more simple tasks; this gives a more realistic impression of overall progress and prevents all the difficult tasks from accumulating at the end of the project when the pressure is most intense.  

By working in iterations the team will get things done and learn from the process, before another stance on direction is taken again for the coming sprint.  The popular analogy for working under ever-changing circumstances is that it is like navigating a submarine. “Periscope up”, look around, take note of where you have come to and decide on the direction for the following iteration, “periscope down” and sail. After a stretch the process repeats itself. Iterations allow for focus and for a learning cycle to be built into the process, which is especially important when handling complex issues. The purpose of implementing constraints into a workflow (teams, artefacts, events, iterations) is equally to motivate and create a culture of collaboration, transparency and learning, and also to bring sustainable structure to work that exists in complex surroundings and with constant outside changes. Working in an agile way, however, is not only about implementing structure; it is also very much about a mindset regarding contributions, leadership and power, which is the focus of the two following sections.

Dual Leadership flattens the power structure

Many non-profits start out with a rather flat power structure; if the organization is very small it is more likely that everyone should be heard and everyone takes part in creating value for those the organization is set in place to serve. However, as organisations grow non-profits also face the lure of creating the default triangular hierarchies that our cultural backgrounds prescribe. In an attempt to avoid mistakes and maintain control, management sneaks in. Yet, with traditional management comes also a view of what a leader is that essentially separates the tasks of “thinking” and “doing”. It deems managers able to make decisions and workers below able to carry out instructions, totally neglecting the simple truth that ideas and solutions are developed best where thinking and doing is combined. 

When working in an agile manner the leadership of any team is divided into two. One Strategic Officer (traditionally called a Product Owner in Scrum) and one Operations Officer (traditionally called a Scrum Master in Scrum). Simply put, it is the responsibility of the first (the SO) to look outwards to the users, customers, and needs as well as supporters and be able to make strategic priorities regarding what to focus on and when.  The Operations Officer (OO) looks inward to the team, and serves the team by doing his or her best to remove obstacles and create optimal working conditions for everyone; thereby encouraging volunteers and colleagues to thrive and complete their projects. 

Everyone in the entire team, however, including the two leaders are dedicated to creating the maximum amount of value according to the purpose of the organization, value that of course may look very different from non-profit to non-profit.

The role of the Strategic Officer, we must be clear, is not that of a traditional boss forcing the team ahead. The SO’s main focus is finding, prioritizing and defining value, but the team itself chooses how much work they can manage within a given iteration – from among those work items the SO has found to be the highest priority for the coming iteration – and the team is also involved with estimating the amount of work each work item amounts to.

Both roles, the SO and the OO, are to have a servant-leader mindset, one with an outward focus the other with an inward. The servant leader mindset of the dual leadership in agile teams works to counter the aggregation of power in individual people, it flattens the power structure so to speak.

The first tenet of Agile Lean Leadership is that by working in teams that are all focussed on the value stream, we generally avoid the pitfalls of the classical hierarchy. Teams form a social unit, where psychological safety can exist, where there is always one to help if we stumble and we are accountable to each other. This description of leadership though is focussed generally on single teams. Many larger organizations will have a need for a broader definition of what leadership or the organizational structure might look like when agile is scaled out into a whole organisation. For a more thorough description of Agile Lean Leadership and scaling out agile into larger organizations, please see here… For more information or courses about the roles, please see here…

Implementing dual leadership, prescribing a servant-leader attitude to the work, is definitely a large part of the agile view of leadership. However, we might dig deeper and look even more closely at what servant-leadership is and the behavior and development of character traits that follow.

Leadership and humility

As mentioned in the introduction, it is our assumption that everyone involved in non-profit work, be it the volunteer, the paid worker or the leader, is already committed to the purpose of the organization. Energy might naturally be spent encouraging each other and keeping colleagues and fellow volunteers motivated to the work, but the starting point is that there is a consensus that this particular work is important and meaningful. It is therefore of paramount importance that leaders do not knowingly, or unknowingly drain or discourage those who are committing time, energy and resources to the purpose. The development of a hierarchical organisational structure, traditional management, and fear-based extrinsic motivators will unavoidably drain initiative and exploit the generosity of those involved. That has to be avoided especially in non-profit organizations.

Leadership is also about character, and one character trait that you cannot avoid when talking about good leadership is humility. This is becoming increasingly clear for researchers of leadership. Dan Cable clarifies in his 2018 in Harvard Business Review: “Humility and servant leadership do not imply that leaders have low self-esteem, or take on an attitude of servility. Instead, servant leadership emphasizes that the responsibility of a leader is to increase the ownership, autonomy, and responsibility of followers — to encourage them to think for themselves and try out their own ideas.” He also specifies that taking on a humble approach to the leadership role may be simpler than you think. “Rather than telling employees how to do their jobs better, start by asking them how you can help them do their jobs better.” This servant leadership stance is exemplified very clearly in the role that an Operational Officer holds. The core job that he/she has is to support and remove obstacles for his team. 

The humble attitude of leaders not only encourages workers and volunteers to take on ownership of their tasks or domains, it also in and by itself creates a “low-risk space for employees to experiment with their ideas” thereby encouraging “employees to push on the boundaries of what they already know.” (Cable, 2018) A team that takes initiative, self-manages and cooperates well with others will not develop under an authoritarian leader who uses a mix of carrots and sticks to drive employees. “First, drive out fear” W. E. Deming said. Fear can be of making mistakes or of bringing up their ideas, or taking initiative. Creating a culture of a participative and empowering Agile mindset, doubtlessly requires that leaders are able to act from a position of humility.


Most non-profit work is based on a desire to do a work of meaning, to bring change, support or assistance to others or to an estimable cause. Taking on an agile approach to this work can be a hand in glove fit for many, because agile in its essence incorporates the idea that the world, people, and needs of non-profit organizations are complex and working to meet such needs means taking that into account. One consequence of this is to create structures that for smaller chunks of time limit that complexity allowing people to get actual work done (iterations) while not being blind to the fact that the world is constantly developing and changing and we need to navigate accordingly. 

This leads us to the second consequence, which is the need to build in a culture of constant learning through transparency of work (visual artefacts) as well as welcoming feed-back both in regards to product (from the users, contributors and supporters) and process (from volunteers and staff) with each iteration. 

The third and last consequence to be mentioned here has to do with how leadership is viewed and embodied. A dual leadership structure provides a clear task mandate of who looks out and pertains to strategy and who looks in and supports the team creating optimal working conditions for them – which is the operational side of the endeavor. Both have the mandate to make decisions within their area and so does the team, when it comes to the tactical outplay of things. The leadership culture in general should be that of servant leaders, who display a degree of humility towards the work they are put in place to carry out and towards the people and cause that they want to contribute to. This is perhaps especially important for non-profit organizations, because it honors the commitment of volunteers and employees alike and recognizes the contributions of everyone involved with the purpose of the organization. 

At Agile Lean House, where we teach, coach and serve organizations that want to implement Agile Lean Leadership, we would be more than happy to assist your non-profit organisation in any way should you feel inspired to dig deeper into the agile approach and mindset. 



Anne Due Broberg

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