Blog / Nonprofits

Capacity Building for Resilience, Part 2: Adapting to a VUCA Environment

by Tamela Spicer
Capacity Building for Resilience, Part 2: Adapting to a VUCA Environment

I had a strange experience around week nine of the stay-at-home order here in Michigan. Things felt normal.

I had finished a productive week of work, finding new ways to effectively serve nonprofit organizations through training and consulting online. I enjoyed some time outside as spring finally arrived and even hosted my first-ever virtual dinner party. Despite the uncertainty brought on by the COVID-19 crisis, I was adjusting to the changes and finding new ways to do the things that I find important.

I have to confess, feeling normal while still in the midst of a pandemic was a little unsettling. As the weeks have progressed and stay-at-home orders began lifting across the country, I began taking stock of my own capacity to continually adapt to the ever-changing situation. I realized that perhaps I’m a little more resilient than I thought.


Many nonprofit leaders are discovering their own resilience, both on a personal level as they’ve led teams through this crisis, and on an organizational level as they’ve managed teams through program changes, staffing challenges, and financial uncertainty. While the impact of COVID-19 has been experienced in vastly different ways throughout the sector, no one has been immune to the impact of this VUCA environment.

Coined by the military in the 1990s, VUCA describes the chaos created when the world is Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous (Bawany, 2016, para. 1). Sound familiar?

Navigating this VUCA reality will require us to think and act differently as we find our own resilience in this volatile time of continued uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. It will require organizations to rethink priorities, try new things, and even let go of some of those things we’ve been doing for a long time. Moving our organizations through this crisis will require vulnerability, risk, and innovation. While resilience is never static, it is a muscle that can be developed as we navigate this VUCA environment — ready to not only survive, but thrive.

The instinct for organizational preservation may cause some to retreat during a crisis. It’s natural to turn our focus inward as we seek balance, certainty, and a sense of control. Yet resilience in a time of VUCA requires that organizations press into relationships, practice transparency, and leverage the power of partnerships by making use of the social capital that has been built throughout the organization’s history. “Resilience can be created through patterns of interaction between organizations and people” (Seville, 2017, p. 84).

Demonstrating Resilience

Creating those “patterns of interaction” is precisely what the New York Blood Center has done by leveraging relationships with patients who have recovered from COVID-19. A survivors’ group was started on Facebook in late March 2020, connecting more than 38,000 people in less than one month. This group, known as the Survivor Corps, has partnered with the New York Blood Center “to encourage survivors of the deadly virus to donate their plasma” so that antibodies in the plasma can be used to help treat the patients that filled New York hospitals at the height of the pandemic (Krisel, 2020, para. 2). While this convalescent plasma has yet to be proven effective in treating coronavirus, hospitals in a city ravaged by the disease were willing to try.

The New York Blood Center was able to respond amidst this pandemic because they possessed the five key ingredients for resilient organizations (Seville, 2017):

  1. Leadership that others want to follow
  2. Good staff engagement
  3. Effective partnerships
  4. Good situational awareness
  5. A learning mindset of innovation and creativity

We see resilience all around us as nonprofit organizations across the country have responded to the health and economic crisis. But resilience doesn’t just happen, it needs to be fostered.

In Wisconsin, nonprofit organizations are fostering resilience by coming “together in solidarity to create one fundraising campaign that will provide essential financial support during this economic crisis” (Together Chippewa Valley). About 20 nonprofits from Chippewa and Eau Claire counties, including the Girl Scouts, Bob’s House for Dogs, and the Chippewa Valley Museum have created a collaborative effort to support each other and their community through this time.

According to the Together Chippewa Valley website, these organizations collectively serve over 270,000 people annually. Each of these organizations recognized that under the current circumstances, their best chance to thrive is to do it together. The nonprofit community in the Chippewa Valley is demonstrating resilience through a courageous and innovative approach to sharing their stories and raising funds together.

Ann Kaiser, Chief Executive Officer for Boys and Girls Clubs of the Greater Chippewa Valley and a founding partner in the initiative, noted that as of early June they have raised over $180,000. The partnership includes the local tourism agency, Visit Eau Claire Foundation, acting as the fiduciary agent. The nonprofit organizations have been pleased with the success of their efforts and the networking it has created for the first time across the valley. So much so, that plans are underway to leverage the relationships built during this crisis into future joint projects far beyond the pandemic.

Resilience in a VUCA Environment

Crisis can create space for new opportunities as it makes the status quo untenable and creates the sense of urgency needed to drive change. Yet our organizational capacity to adapt demonstrates a cultural aspect to resilience. It emerges from how an organization behaves, as much as what it actually does. “A resilience culture moves far beyond just developing good crisis plans and running exercises, it is about developing a mindset and an attitude” (Seville 2017, p. 141).

Developing this mindset requires strategic thought and intentionality. As we navigate our way through the COVID-19 crisis, resilience requires us to pay attention to what we’re learning and to think about how these lessons will move us forward — and how we will carry them forward — into the new normal. Many organizations, for instance, have rediscovered the need for self-care and flexible work schedules for their staff.

As we make our way back to physical office spaces, how will we leave room for these practices that are so important to the well-being of nonprofit leadership and staff? During the quarantine many boards have met online, eliminating the need for childcare or travel time to attend a meeting. As spatial distancing rules are relaxed, how can we continue to provide greater accessibility for board members to actively engage?

Access has been created in a variety of ways during this pandemic. Museums have shared their exhibits virtually. Zoos are showing off their animals online. Symphonies are providing live music directly from a musician’s homes to yours. As restrictions lift, how do we preserve opportunities for communities to experience art and culture in new, more cost-effective ways? Drive-up food pantries, tele-counseling, virtual coaching, and online youth programs have brought lessons that not only build organizational resilience, but also teach us something about how to create greater access in serving our communities. While challenging, this period of crisis has also provided opportunities for many organizations to test new service delivery options and rethink old programming.

The COVID-19 crisis has been destabilizing for individuals, organizations, and communities alike, but developing resilience in a VUCA environment can be an opportunity for growth. Understanding the environment allows good leaders and engaged employees to focus on a learning mindset, press into partnerships, and find creative solutions to the challenges caused by the pandemic. Approaching the crisis from a position of learning can help us turn volatility into vision for the future, to transform our organizations by creating understanding out of uncertainty and finding clarity amidst confusion. Ambiguity can force us to be agile in adapting to a rapidly changing environment.

Building Capacity for Resilience

“A resilient nonprofit is one that stays connected to its people, focuses on securing reliable and predictable revenue streams, is able to optimize expenses and develops contingency plans for mission delivery — all while leveraging technology and data to adapt on demand to address organizational challenges” (Myers 2020, para. 15). This is no small order.

As noted in the first blog of this series, organizations need to develop their core capacities — adaptive, leadership, management, and technical capacities – in order to develop resilience. Yet not all organizations have the resources that allow them to adapt. While the for-profit corporate sector may quickly rebuild as capital is pumped into the system,

“nonprofits that fail cannot be so easily replaced or restarted. Few have the type of hard, tangible assets that can survive a gap in service. There is no all-powerful profit-motive to fuel a reconstruction. Philanthropy is not good at providing front-loaded, restart capital at scale” (Macintosh, 2020, para. 7).

How can this “$200 billion industry that touches the lives of more than 1 in 5 Americans” (Macintosh, 2020, para. 8) be sustained?

Research has made it clear that to effectively build the capacity of nonprofit organizations requires “funding to pay for hard costs, such as new or enhanced software systems, and other infrastructure investments to support new processes and practices, and to cover the staff time needed to implement change” (Devine, 2016, p. 46). This operational funding is increasingly important as cancelled events, stalled programs, and new program delivery continues to stretch organizations beyond their capacity. Even the most resilient nonprofits will be not be able to survive and thrive alone. It will take a concerted response from philanthropy, the community, and government. Next month, in part three of this series, we will explore that response.


Bawany, S. (2016, November 1). Leading in a VUCA World. Retrieved from

Devine, N. (2016). The groundwork for successful cohort-based fiscal capacity-building: An evaluation of the strengthening financial management initiative. The Foundation Review, 8(1), 40–47.

Krisel, B. (2020, April 9). NYC blood bank partners with coronavirus survivor group. Patch.

MacIntosh, J. (2020, March 20). Covid-19 could mean extinction for many charities. CNN.

Myers, L. (2020, April 7). 4 keys to creating resilient nonprofit. Nonprofit Pro.

Seville, E. (2017). Resilient organizations: How to survive, thrive and create opportunities through crisis and change. London: Kogan Page Limited.

Together Chippewa Valley.