Organizational Infrastructure

Organizational Infrastructure is More Than Buildings and Business Systems

December 7, 2021
by Anna Prow

Those of us working in the nonprofit sector are talking more and more about organizational infrastructure these days — because we have learned that it is essential to success as organizations grow and expand their impact.  But do we even agree on what organizational infrastructure is? And, do we know why infrastructure is important to organizational success?

When I use the term “infrastructure” in the context of nonprofit organizations, many think I am talking about the building, the heating system, or even the organization’s computers. Others reference the organization’s business systems, Human Resources policies, and other dimensions of operations. These items are definitely part of infrastructure, but the concept that is getting traction in the sector is actually much broader — encompassing leadership practices, planning, integrating across functions, culture, and more. In essence, infrastructure is anything that supports the organization and its staff in excelling at delivering on mission. And, when any one component is not getting the attention it needs, it affects the entire organization.

(Re)defining Infrastructure

In our work as Term Executives, we define infrastructure as the effective integration of business systems, program design, management and leadership, and culture to advance the organization’s mission:

  • Program design – Strategy, goals, timeline, and tactics to deliver on the mission
  • Business systems – Administrative and core functions that support and enable program design and delivery
  • Management and Leadership – The ways individuals show up to guide the organization’s work and enable performance
  • Culture – Shared history, beliefs, norms, values, and practices

Why does interconnection among these components matter? Let me give you some examples:

  • Organization X had decent business systems to keep up with its growth. Its culture was intentional, loving, encouraging. The nonprofit’s program planning, while not perfect, was structured and the vision was clear. But as the organization rapidly expanded, it neglected to fully develop and enable its management corps. Managers didn’t have the capacity to bolster what worked, challenge what didn’t, and to support staff in keeping balance in a VUCA (vulnerable, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) state. The organization didn’t have the management bench depth to maintain strategic focus as the organization grew. Things fell apart.
  • Organization Y had an earnest culture, intentional strategy, and attentive leaders. But business systems were neglected during the start-up phase, and administrative transactions were cumbersome and time-consuming.  This engendered frustration and inequity and undermined other organizational strengths.

These are just two examples of many that we have seen working in nonprofits of every size and in every issue area. What I have learned is that when any one component of the model I present above is out of alignment, the organization struggles.  More often than not, that lack of alignment is simply due to insufficient intentionality about one or more infrastructure elements.  That can be understandable in mission-driven organizations whose work revolves around programs, in a climate where so many parties believe that every penny should go toward programs.

But today’s nonprofits require strong organizational infrastructures for ongoing effectiveness–both to stay resilient in an uncertain world, and to provide safe workplaces for dedicated staff.  We can no longer pretend that culture, management, and leadership aren’t relevant to mission delivery—and because they are so influential to our work, they must be considered part of an organization’s infrastructure.

An Integrated System

When organizations are in the early phases of their development, it is not uncommon for staff to tolerate less-than-effective infrastructure (often an “all hands on deck” mentality drives progress, but leads to minimizing the importance of culture and systems). But, when the organization wants to scale, all of the elements of infrastructure I have mentioned are critical.

When Trellis Partners gets called in to organizations to help, we often find that leaders appreciate why the “hard” elements of infrastructure are important: for example, why an accounting system is needed if the nonprofit is going to have multiple sites, or how a Human Resources team is needed to recruit more staff.

What can be more challenging for leaders to understand is how the “soft” aspects of infrastructure – leadership and culture — play into the organization’s future success. As an example, in many founder-led organizations, staff defer to the CEO for direction and decision-making. If an organization wants to grow, though, this model is unsustainable. The organization needs to invest in managers who can interpret the vision, provide direction, and help staff at all levels take the work forward. As another example, if your organizational culture valorizes those with content knowledge, but demonstrates little respect for those who keep the trains running, it should come as no surprise when the organization faces delays, slow financial transactions, security and reputational risks, and beleaguered administrative staff—imperiling mission delivery.  Leadership and culture are the connective tissue in organizations. If they are ignored, it does not take long for the organization’s programs and systems to fail.

The solution: resource each of the four dimensions of infrastructure, ensure that the interconnections among them are reinforced, and demonstrate to staff that the organization’s infrastructure is not just some internal bureaucrat’s responsibility – it requires ongoing attention from everyone in the organization.

The ways staff and leadership design their work, structure business/administrative systems, foster the organization’s culture, and set standards for management and leadership effectiveness all contribute to the products and services they offer the world – in essence, contribute to the organization’s impact. Once staff understand all of the interdependencies in infrastructure, it has meaning for them – and they can then comprehend that it needs attention every day to deliver the intended outcomes.

Your Organization’s Infrastructure

How well is your organization’s infrastructure supporting the results you seek?  Trellis Partners’ Organizational Resilience Questionnaire can help you get a sense of which aspects of your infrastructure are strongest and where you could stabilize, strengthen, or scale your systems for maximum impact. You may find yourself surprised at what this questionnaire reveals – aspects of your organization that you did not consider as infrastructure that need attention. Once you see the gaps, though, you can prioritize them and build a system that sets your organization up for the next level of excellence.

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