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Nonprofit Executives: What Does VUCA Mean? And How to Lead Through It Like a Champ

October 3, 2022
6 minutes

It’s a mad, mad world, nonprofit friends. You’ve got turbulence. You’ve got tribulation. Yep, you’ve got trouble. Right here in River City. Or, y’know, wherever you live, because we live in a globalized society and we’re all in this together.

Music Man lyrics aside, most of us are living in tumultuous times, which can make it difficult to function as a human being and even more difficult to lead your organization effectively. Things are financially erratic, politically unstable, and globally unpredictable. To encompass this unsettled world of ours, the C-suite set has coined the term “VUCA.” What does it mean and how can it help you navigate life as a nonprofit leader in unprecedented times? Read on.

What does VUCA mean?

VUCA stands for:

  • Volatile
  • Uncertain
  • Complex
  • Ambiguous

Full disclaimer: some folks prefer to use nouns, in which case, it stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. In short, VUCA refers to the many challenges facing our world today, each of which requires a distinct strategy and response. Let’s use it in a sentence: “It’s hella VUCA out there, folks!” (Pretty sure we rocked that. Very natural. You can really infer the meaning from the context.)

While the acronym has been around for decades (thanks, US Army!), it’s become increasingly popular lately, as things have gotten increasingly, well, VUCA.

Sooo, what does VUCA really mean?

Beyond the acronym, VUCA refers to the various challenges of a changing world. Specifically:

  • Volatile refers to how our world is always changing in unexpected ways.
  • Uncertain refers to how it’s becoming increasingly difficult to know what will happen in the future.
  • Complex refers to the multifaceted and interconnected nature of our world and the difficulty of making sound decisions with so many moving parts.
  • Ambiguous refers to the gray nature of modern life, where we’re facing so many unknowns and so much confusion.

We recently spoke to Andrew Olsen, CFRE and SVP of DickersonBakker. He’s worked in the nonprofit industry since 2005 as a consultant, fundraiser, and instructor, so he saw many nonprofits through the 2008-2009 recession, a prime example of what happens in a VUCA world. When we asked him about our current economic climate, he described a perfect VUCA storm: “In my opinion, our economy is not as elastic as it was in 2008 – 2009 … which I expect will result in a longer period of economic instability. Add to that the ongoing global conflict in Eastern Europe, and other domestic policy issues that all contribute to increased costs, and we have a very complex and challenging financial situation.”

You can read our whole discussion about leading your nonprofit through a recession for plenty of great tips on getting through this type of VUCA event.

What does VUCA have to do with nonprofits?

Companies don’t exist in a vacuum. They respond to the world around them—to the latest trends, current events, innovations, and social norms. In the for-profit business world, VUCA provides a framework for leading through these various changes, events, and crises. And just as businesses are facing unprecedented times, so, too, are nonprofits. If you want to run your nonprofit more like a business, you need to know how to survive and thrive in a VUCA world.

The impact of a VUCA world on your nonprofit

So, you may ask, how does one do that? If you want to lead in a VUCA world, you first need to be aware of how it affects your staff members and clients. Here are a few examples.

  • Staff members get distracted. With so much going on, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and lose focus.
  • It’s difficult to make decisions and fully buy into future plans because everything feels uncertain.
  • People get demotivated because everything feels so much bigger than their day-to-day.
  • Donors give more, less, or in new ways due to shifting priorities and escalating crises.
  • Project timelines get pushed back with everything going on.
  • There’s more turnover within your organization as personal and professional opportunities change.
  • More clients need your services in the face of current events.
  • New technologies change up the status quo, leading to new priorities and goals.
  • Your culture suffers because folks are stressed out and on edge.

How to lead in tumultuous times

As you can see, living this VUCA life can make it hard to make sound decisions and take critical action. But it doesn’t have to be all bad! By having a strategy for each VUCA category, you can pivot, adapt, and figure things out. What does that look like? Academics Nate Bennett and G. James Lemoine created the handy-dandy table below for Harvard Business Review (that’s how you know it’s good), below. Check it out, and then we’ll repurpose it for the nonprofit sphere.

A 4-cell matrix entitled "A Guide to Approaching Events in the Four VUCA Categories". Moving clockwise from the top left, Complexity, Volatility, Uncertainty, Ambiguity - each cell contains Characteristics, Examples, and Approach.

The nonprofit model to get you through VUCA

As you can see, there are actionable approaches to each facet of VUCA that can help you respond appropriately to various challenges. For nonprofits, the approach might look like this:

Volatile

Resource-strapped nonprofits may struggle to build in slack and stockpile resources, but standing behind a strong vision and mission will help get you through volatile times. Remain flexible in the face of change and be bold, but ground fundraising for your cause.

Uncertain

Tap into your network, particularly your board, to stay on top of the latest information and industry news. This is a great opportunity to send out donor and client surveys for timely insights. Additionally, stay in frequent communication with donors and clients to provide a sense of stability.

Complex

In the face of complexity, transparency and good communication are key. This is a good time to consider redefining some roles to ensure every base is covered. Invest in technology to ensure you’re following the data, and consider hiring a consultant or specialist to help wade through the complexities.

Ambiguous

Just like a business, a nonprofit can experiment to learn how to thrive in ambiguity. Be agile, encourage staff members to think outside their usual roles, and ask yourself what’s working and what’s not. Take any lessons learned and apply them going forward.

Ultimately, it’s about having transparent and meaningful conversations, being open to new ways of thinking and doing, and being willing to shift your behavior and mindset accordingly. When you can’t rely on best practices, you have to rely on experimentation and agility.

The last few years have been tough, but there have been some bright spots. Hopefully, before too long, things will feel stable again. Peaceful. Good. But even if we’re in a moment of steadiness and solidity, the people we serve may not be. Whether it’s folks who still need clean water, animals who need medical care, or refugees in search of a home, you can help your clients get through turbulent times by staying nimble, aware, and—always—hopeful.

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