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Organisational health: The unseen link

ian Ian Conolly
4 min

‘Be the difference!’ ‘Ignite hope!’ ‘Inspire change!’

There’s a reason why these rallying statements are so familiar and well-worn. They resonate with our God-given desire to have lasting impact. Non-profit organisations around the world have adopted mission statements like these. The reality is, however, that these motivations don’t have the desired outcome overnight. Change takes time. Making the world a better place is never a ‘microwaveable meal’. It is usually the small day-to-day shifts over a long period of time - many years, even decades - that result in change.

Yet, it’s worth it.  Being part of a team that is well-run, energised, guided by a clear vision, and creating a lasting impact that spans generations, is deeply fulfilling even if it is hard to create.

As Jim Collins puts it in his foreword to the book Engine of Impact, it’s the complexity of seeing all the organisational parts working together in synergy, focused on serving the mission, that makes it ‘substantially more difficult to build a great social sector organisation than a great business corporation of similar scale. This is why the best-run, most impactful non-profits stand as some of the most impressive enterprises in the world’.

Focusing on sustainability

Sustainability is not a given. Non-profit organisations operate within a complex ecosystem and they navigate many challenges as they strive to achieve their missions. The most evident is the struggle with short-term funding when long-term change is needed.

There is, however, an even greater challenge, more critical, subtle and nuanced. It sits unseen below the surface and affects every aspect of the life of a non-profit. That challenge is the organisation’s health.

Let’s be clear what is meant by organisational health. In their article Organisational health: A fast track to performance improvement, consulting firm McKinsey define organisational health as ‘the organisation’s ability to align around a common vision, execute against that vision effectively, and renew itself through innovation and creative thinking.’

Here’s the premise we like to use at FiftyFour: healthy organisations with healthy leaders stand a far greater chance of having sustainable impact.

Let’s probe that a bit.

Linking organisational health and sustainable impact

Consider the funding aspect - a major challenge for organisations. Can improving a non-profit’s health directly affect its financial stability?

Imagine you are a funder of charitable organisations and there are two different organisations approaching you for funding. You are grappling with which to fund. Both are doing great work. There is one difference. One is unhealthy internally: leadership development is limited, systems are not in place and teams are lacking unity. The other is thriving: team dynamics are vibrant and mission alignment is clear. Which are you more likely to fund?

The healthier organisation, would you not? Research suggests there is a direct link between the health of a non-profit organisation and the level of funding it receives. The reach of an organisation’s health is wider though. It goes beyond funding and into the sustainability of the whole organisation.

The research by McKinsey shows that ‘almost all companies perform better if they improve their health’ - noting that around 80% of organisations that actively invest in improving their health see performance improvement.

That statistic may even seem even a bit conservative. Of course, it’s not an exact science, but it does stand to reason that when an organisation takes time to grow its health, results will follow. There will be impact – not just in the now but, more importantly, sustainably into the future.

Get started on growing your health

The vital link between organisational health and impact remains largely unseen, hidden from the world outside and often hidden even from the leaders themselves.

You may be asking, ‘How do we practically take the next step in growing our organisation’s health?’ Like impact it is not a quick fix, but rather a day-to-day intentional investment.

At FiftyFour, we have been imagining ways to support leaders to advance the health of their organisations. We envision a place of connecting and learning from seasoned leaders, practitioners and subject matter experts; people who, having gone before us and understand the challenges leaders face. We imagine a space for practical equipping and capacity building, fostering a community of peers on a shared journey towards advancing the health of their organisations.

It was in this collaborative vision that FiftyFour was born. An online learning and capacity building platform, FiftyFour is designed to guide leaders towards growing healthy organisations that will have impact for generations to come, and it is absolutely free. We would love for you to join us on this learning journey and unlock your organisation’s full potential. 

Register now

This article is a series of three articles, written by FiftyFour’s Executive Director, Ian Conolly. In the next article Ian explores the challenge of complexity in leading organisations and how to effectively overcome it. 


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Written by

Ian Conolly

Ian leads the FiftyFour Collective, an initiative of Mergon, Maclellan and 3W Foundations. He previously ran his own leadership consulting business before joining the Mergon Foundation to lead their organisational development work with non-profits in Africa and the Middle East. He has a heart for leaders and finds joy in walking alongside leaders as they navigate challenges.