Working the Agile way in Non-profit Organizations

Working the Agile way in non-profit Organizations

Normally we think of agility as man’s best friend jumping through hoops and performing other tricks, however Agile is also a modern way of organising work and achieving better results.

Non-profit organizations come in all shapes and sizes, from the flat to the layered, from local to international, run by paid staff or volunteers, all, however, serve the common goal of fulfilling a need in this world. Working the Agile way may not be for all types of work, as we shall see, but when it comes to working with complex needs or solutions and in general when working with people, it may just have something of significant value to offer. The point of this article is to encourage non-profit workers to consider the benefits of applying an Agile approach to their projects and passions.

Agile thinking originally arose within the IT-sector, challenging traditional hierarchies and responding to a growing need from the market for being able to make faster decisions and prioritize quality at the same time. It has since then proliferated and is being used within all kinds of sectors and fields, private as well as public, to develop products or services as well to organize events and undertakings of the ‘pioneering’ sort.

When working with an agile approach, there are constraints that support the goal of becoming flexible and nimble as an organization as well as focused and quality-oriented. These constraints or parts of the Agile approach can be and are used individually, but there are significant benefits to using the approach in its entirety:


Working the Agile way is best suited to where work in cross-functional teams make sense. The support and accountability provided by working in an interconnected, self-organizing team of people with different skill sets and personalities carries with it many of the benefits the Agile approach provides. The fact that the team self-organizes is important as it carries with it both an aspect of ownership over the given project as well as accountability between team members.


When working the Agile way, work is divided into iterations or, cadences – within the Scrum method called Sprints. They are usually a fixed duration of between two and four weeks. Deliverables for upcoming iterations are planned and prioritized and then monitored to ensure that they are completed on time. 

These iterations are sometimes compared to navigating a submarine: periscope up – assesses the situation and chose a direction; periscope down and move. Repeat. Working this way makes sense where work cannot be planned in detail months ahead – because, by the time the plans are carried out, the world will have changed. Incorporating a constant reflection of the work carried out also ensures that a culture of constant improvement emerges. It lives up to the PDSA cycle of W. Edwards Deming: Plan-Do-Study-Act.


One of the values of Agile is creating a culture of radical transparency. Some of the artifacts that support this transparency are Backlogs that reflect how work is prioritized and handled. These are public for all who might be interested and should reflect the actual progress being made. Within Agile there is also a very clear definition of work that is “Done” – which basically just mean actually, “Done”.

Ceremonies or meetings

Working in an Agile manner calls for disciplined reflection on the work carried out. Built into the routine of iterations, time is set apart to plan, take stock and review. At the end of the iteration, there is also a ceremony called retrospective that focuses on the process. All this may seem time-consuming, but when taking the time to incorporate a routine of continually estimating future goals, reflecting on past achievements and learning from mistakes – the quality of the work is that much higher.

Clear roles and servant leadership

The Agile approach usually requires two “servant-leader” roles, the first is in charge of strategy and prioritizing what to include in the iterations, the other is in charge of serving the team, protecting them from distractions and supporting them and the project. It is inherent within the Agile paradigm that leadership is at its core about service. The main job of leaders is to make those they work with succeed and thereby reach the common goal for which the enterprise was created.

Why use Agile in non-profit organizations?

So why does it make sense to use concepts created for Software development and IT with Non-Profit Organizations?

It forces you to prioritize

Well first of all, because many of the issues that Agile was designed to resolve are inherently part of many non-profit organizations as well. The need to act quickly and respond to emerging or changing needs is very characteristic of many non-profits. Agile thinking forces you to prioritize. Ben Battaglia compares working for a non-profit to drinking from a firehose – too much to do with too few resources. Working the Agile way makes it easier to prioritize and avoid much of the time wasted on task-switching.


Just as the financial market today favors nimble and flexible organizations, there is also a need for flexibility and agility within non-profit organizations. Gloria Horsley from the non-profit “Open to Hope” tells Forbes magazine: “The ability to make changes on the fly because of using agile processes and structures has been one of the greatest benefits. Certain fundraising campaigns were tweaked even after they were released, which would have never previously happened. For that, we received a much greater response and financial results.”


There are many different types of work, and as mentioned the Agile approach is not appropriate for all types of work. Dave Snowden, researcher at Cognitive Edge, divides work (among other aspects of reality) into four domains in his sense-making model: Cynefin.

  • Work that exists in the Obvious Domain consists of tasks that respond to immediate well-known needs, a constant flow of things that have to be taken care of. Here sprints or iterations make little sense. Think of for example secretarial work or working at a factory line. Work can still be organized according to some principles of Agile but a full implementation with teams and iterations is not appropriate.
  • The Complicated Domain is the domain of experts. Here work is still ordered like in the Simple Domain, but the best solution is not always self-evident, instead, it requires expertise within the field or thorough analysis.
  • The Complex Domain is different from the two others. It is where cause and effect are only evident in hindsight, with unpredictable emergent outcomes. The appropriate model for making decisions in this domain is to carry out safe-to-fail experiments, not fail-safe designs. If an experiment succeeds it is amplified, if it fails it is dampened. This is exactly the Domain where an Agile approach makes the most sense, and it is exactly the set of challenges that Agile as a framework meets. Iterations are in themselves types of experiments, that are reflected on at completion. Did it work? Does it still meet the requirements or needs of the users or people we serve?

My proposition is that much non-profit work must lie within, or have elements of the complex domain – dealing with complex needs, dealing with complex funding, and basically working with a lot of other human beings.

Participation and volunteers

You can make the argument that even though we (AgileLeanHouse) advocate that using Agile principles could be of benefit to all kinds of organizations, perhaps it especially suits the profile of a lot of non-profit organizations. The reason is that at the DNA level of a lot of non-profit organizations, a core value is to create passionate participation and involvement from the people working for, or volunteering for the organization. There is a mission, a calling you might go as far as to call it, and Agile principles help everyone to be involved and engaged in that mission. Dave Snowden says: “Knowledge can only be volunteered it cannot be conscripted” when talking about getting everyone’s input on a matter. In non-profit organizations, it is very often the case that, it is not just knowledge that has to be volunteered, it is a lot of the actual work that is provided on a volunteer basis as well. This makes the Agile way a very good match.

Agile principles encourage the intrinsic motivation of participants, based on the belief that purpose, autonomy and mastery are better and more lasting motivators than extrinsic motivators such as bonuses and internal competition. In that way, Agile principles can create a greater fulfillment for those involved, and in addition, it keeps everyone connected to and working towards the actual goal or mission of the organization.

Transparency and servant leadership

It is safe to say that being transparent is crucial to all non-profit organizations. A common trait of non-profit organizations is that they have been set in motion because of a mission that requires a broad base of support in order to succeed. Transparency is needed for the people the organization serves as well as for those who support it. Being transparent may seem difficult, but even when mistakes are made (which will happen whether the organization is transparent or not) the fact that nothing is hidden, fosters an increase in trust in the community the organization serves or for which it advocates. Perfection does not attract people as much as authenticity and humility does.

You know your own organization best. But if you would like to hear more about an Agile approach to non-profit work, do not hesitate to contact:

Anne Due Broberg,

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