November 12, 2015; Poynter

Size and impact are not always correlated as far as nonprofits are concerned. There is always something impressive about a small nonprofit that punches well above its weight class. What creates that kind of magic?

Peter Senge and Charles Kiefer, whose work was later associated with the concept of the “learning organization,” used the term “metanoic organizations” to describe this dynamic of building “the extraordinary power of a group of people who, securely rooted in their individual creative power, bond together to collectively bring into being a vision that none could accomplish alone.”

A metanoic organization is one that has undergone a fundamental shift of orientation, going from the individual and collective belief that people are responsible for their individual lives, duties, and responsibilities and are, in the extreme, working in siloes without connection to others in the organization and community, to the conviction that they are building a collective vision—not merely to make money, but because it is consistent with their own life’s purpose. Consequently, the vision held in a metanoic organization is not only worthy of each member’s highest personal ideals and commitment but also of constant communication of progress and problems so all stays aligned.

The Poynter Institute traveled to The Lens, the small but influential nonprofit news operation in New Orleans, as part of a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation to identify methods of success other organizations can replicate. Poynter will showcase its findings during the Poynter Nonprofit News Exchange on January 20–22, 2016, in St. Petersburg, Florida.

At first glance, the chances of the tiny Lens staff of eight producing award-winning journalism may seem unlikely. The nonprofit is located in a nondescript industrial park in uptown New Orleans where the office doors are protected by burglar bars and furniture is an eclectic mix of plastic furniture bought at area thrift shops. But in 2015, The Lens received the prestigious Edward R. Murrow Award in partnership with ProPublica for their investigative reporting in “Losing Ground.”

As Katie Hawkins-Gaar of the Poynter Institute visited The Lens, she noted the strong sense of purpose and unity in the newsroom as well as a shared understanding of what stories were worth covering. Each individual was empowered by the organization’s mission “to engage and empower the residents of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast by providing the information and analysis necessary to advocate for more accountable and just governance.”

As readers will note, this mission establishes the ways The Lens will work toward its goal. But perhaps not all missions would work out the same way. Both the process and the goal are about participation towards collective ends; if they were unable to model internally what they want to create externally, the organization might not be so vibrant or productive.

As the Lens demonstrates, organizations experience a fundamental shift in orientation when they embed their mission into their daily as well as long-term objectives and goals. Once so embedded, the staff is empowered and connects the mission to their position duties and responsibilities. One opportunity is during agency and department meetings, when time is set aside for clients to tell their stories or for direct service staff to share. These opportunities are referred to as “mission moments.” Other options are for administrative staff to receive opportunities to directly engage in mission work by taking on other responsibilities for a short period of time. This concept of redundancy, often dismissed as less than fully efficient, can be used across an organization to create depth, open opportunities to adjust ways of working, and eliminate vulnerabilities.

As the organization achieves the plan’s objectives, the entire organization celebrates together. Leaders highlight each individual’s role equally. Board members, other volunteers, and donors are included as well. The celebration further engages all team members and energizes the entire organization around the mission. These activities also empower donors to be more generous and discuss the work with other potential donors.

But not every organization can bring this off. It takes a different orientation toward leadership and personal agency. As Charles Kiefer wrote in “Leadership in Metanoic Organizations”:

A metanoic organization is one that has undergone a fundamental shift of orientation from the individual and collective belief that people must cope with life, and in the extreme, are helpless and powerless, to the conviction that they are individually and collectively empowered to create their future and shape their destiny.

—Gayle Nelson