What do we mean by resilience?

12 April 2018

In our recent report, Strength in Numbers, we talk about how 'resilience is key' for social sector organisations, and that support programmes should be judged by whether they help organisations become more resilient, rather than whether they have received investment. This poses an obvious question for our CEO Nick Temple; what exactly do we mean by resilience?

In our report, we define resilience as "the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties and changing circumstances". One can find a similar definition in Sheryl Sandberg's book on personal resilience, Option B: "Resilience is the strength and speed of our response to adversity". Meanwhile an influential Harvard Business Review article from 2002 by Diane Coutu talks about resilient people and organisations having three characteristics:

  1. a staunch acceptance of reality
  2. a deep belief, often buttressed by strongly held values, that life is meaningful and
  3. an uncanny ability to improvise.

This is something we see in many social sector organisations: a grounding in the reality of their situation, carving meaning and a clear role from difficulties and able to flex and adapt to sustain. Indeed, it is this mix that comprises the 'resilience triangle' in our report.

Resilience Triangle

The S D Bechtel Jr Foundation in the US has some of the best resources on resilience that I've seen and they take this approach even further; how do you go beyond saying "you need to be more resilient’ and towards helping organisations actually build the skills they need in practice. In their Resiliency Guide from 2016, they list seven resiliency factors:

  1. Culture of Learning
  2. Talent & Leadership
  3. Context (Outside-In Thinking)
  4. Planning & Execution
  5. Reputation & Communications
  6. Partnerships & Alliance
  7. Financial Footing

All of these are important, but the ones that stood out to me from our own research, and the other sources I've looked at are:

  1. Culture of Learning (2) Talent & Leadership and (7) Financial Footing.

The first gives an organisation a shared base of what it is for and how it runs – i.e. meaning. Clarity of purpose gives a team an ability to stick to a particular course when appropriate, but equally to experiment and innovate in the pursuit of that mission.

The second is about having the right people and an alignment between board and staff. (Our experience points towards governance as a key factor in organisational success). It’s also vital that all the 'answers' don’t sit with one person. As we put it in Strength in Numbers, organisational barriers to change prevent internal engagement and change becoming embedded.

The third is about finance. Growing reserves allows for more testing and can reduce dependency on specific revenue streams; clear information about the current position and the future financial aims is crucial to this.

Now this doesn't mean that the others don't matter. However, for me they flow from these three foundations. If you are clear on mission and purpose, then communications becomes easier. If you have the right people, then planning & execution will follow. If you understand what you want to achieve and how to do it, then choosing the right partnerships and activities becomes simpler. 

There are other aspects to resilience that I also think are important. I was interested in Sheryl Sandberg's book to read about 'post-traumatic growth'. This is essentially the idea that going through a traumatic experience can often help an individual gain clarity, prioritise, form stronger relationships, find personal strength and identify new possibilities. If you’re familiar with her personal story you’ll understand where this comes from.

While there are obvious limitations to translating ideas about individual resilience to organisations, this did get me thinking about whether the same might be true of charities and social enterprises. Does an organisation that has gone through a particularly difficult period actually find itself strengthened on the other side? We have numerous examples from our Futurebuilders and Communitybuilders portfolios that would indicate that this is true. As one organisation we suppport put it to me.

"Having been helped through that tricky patch, we are now in better shape to diversify our income and grow our impact." 

To achieve this requires honesty, though. As Sandberg puts it, "building resilient teams and organisations takes open and honest communication. When companies fail, it's usually for reasons that almost everyone knows but almost no-one has voiced". Some of this is about listening to feedback, and some is about acknowledging mistakes and learning from 'failures'.

There is much more out there on this topic. The ever-excellent Beth Kanter points out the importance of the health and resilience of individuals working within charities and social enterprises. The Rockefeller Foundation looks at broader systems in its 100 Resilient Cities work. Others focus primarily on governance, such as this programme from the Small Charities Coalition  or on finance – such as these tips from the Kings Fund. An article by Beth Williams from CAF also translates ideas of personal resilience to organisational resilience.

Where does this leave us? Ultimately, all my reading around the topic, and returning to the findings of our own research, leads me to 5 key areas for organisational resilience:

  1. Governance: board and team alignment, clarity of mission & values. 
  2. Openness: to feedback, to partnerships, to experimentation, to learning.
  3. Finance: good information, reserves, strategies, diversification.
  4. Networking: awareness of external landscape, coalitions, sources of support.
  5. Adaptation: commitment to the mission not the model, an ability to flex.

The big challenge now is how to better design support interventions at the right stage and in the right combinations that help organisations in each of these areas. That’s what we want to focus on. And if you want to work with us to help make this happen – get in touch.

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Nick Temple

Chief Executive Officer

Nick joined us in January 2018 as Chief Executive Officer and is a leading figure in the social investment and enterprise sectors.

As well as serving as Chair of Social Investment Forum, Nick previously was Deputy CEO at Social Enterprise UK, where he helped the biggest network of social enterprises in the UK more than treble its membership numbers, develop its Buy Social Corporate Challenge and led the organisation on healthcare and research.

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The Social Investment Business is the trading name for the Social Investment Business Foundation, Registered Company No. 05777484 (England), Registered Charity No 1117185 (England & Wales), The Social Investment Business Limited, Registered in England No. 06490609, VAT No. 927456693 and Futurebuilders-England Limited, Registered in England No. 05066676. Registered Office: CAN Mezzanine, Borough, 7-14 Great Dover Street, London, SE1 4YR

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