Skip to main content

By Lisabeth S. Medlock, Ph.D.

The world in which we now all live is in a constant state of flux, of rapid and unpredictable change, in chaos and upheaval.  As technological advances and ecosystem changes outpace our own human development and ability to adapt, we as a species are striving for some kind of equilibrium. The concept of VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) has been used to describe these conditions.

So, what do each of these terms mean:

Volatility: Not only is the pace pf change faster, but things also change more frequently and with more significant shifts where small pebbles can cause huge waves.

Uncertainty: Unpredictability and unexpected interactions lead us to not know what will come next. There is no longer a known cause and effect, and what works one tine may not work again.

Complexity:  There is more inter-connectivity and interdependence of multiple dimensions in a system. The relationships between things and people are unclear and difficult to understand. A change in one place may cause unintended changes to other things or people down the line.

Ambiguity: Despite the abundant availability of information, there is an absence of a meaningful message, of fact.  Ambiguity comes when there is information overload. There is no clear sense of what is real, true, or certain.

As we operate in a VUCA world, nonprofit organizations should be scanning for how VUCA is impacting operations, stakeholders, employees, clients and results. Here are some questions to pose:

Volatility: What was our high point and low point in the past year, how much time was in between? What is the best and worst outcome we can envision?  What amount of change can we absorb or adapt to before it negatively impacts us?

Uncertainty: Where should we look for change and what are potential signs of change? How will we know when things change? How fast can we respond to a change?

Complexity: How well do we understand the systems, people and structures involved? How are these interconnected? Who and what can be impacted?  What is our ability to anticipate unintended consequences?

Ambiguity: Where and what is our best option for data and information?  What is the possibility for misunderstanding and confusion? How can we communicate more clearly? How will we know if more information is needed before making a decision?

Nonprofit organizations need to make shifts to continue to operate both efficiently and effectively in this VUCA world. To continue to have meaningful impact, these shifts should include some or all the following:

1) The shift from long term planning to real time adaptive strategizing, allowing for rapid response.  Three-year strategic planning does not work in a rapidly changing landscape, so organizations must take their best guess and act. This shifts funding from asking for a detailed plan, to asking about vision, core values and strategies.  Strategizing, when rooted in a strong vision and mission, will help get organizations through volatile times. Adaptability and flexibility in the face of change is the key. It is about seeing the big picture.

2) More reliance on values and visionary thinking toward the future:  Visionary thinking includes boldness, innovation, trying new things, and testing out possibilities. It can become part of day-to-day functioning. Experimentation is the way to learn something new. Strategic thinking also involves trusting wisdom, judgement, and intuition to ‘feel’ the future while living in the present.  Values provide the limits on experimentation and guide possibilities.

3) The embracing of interdependency and connectedness through co- creation and transparency.  Organizations can develop new solutions through collective intelligence, using the knowledge, abilities, and networks of collaborators, in relationships built on mutual trust and respect. Diversity of thought and perspective and the application of different lenses and backgrounds to a problem can lead to finding the most novel and meaningful ideas. If organizations engage in open dialogue and co-creation, they can make sense of complexity, think through meanings, anticipate consequences, and build connections.

4) A need to be vigilant in data scanning to stay abreast of change. This means considering what is known, unknown and cannot be known.  It may mean conducting a SWOT analysis more frequently, as strengths of today might become weaknesses tomorrow. What is an opportunity today might become a challenge tomorrow. Organizations should identify sources they can use to reliably stay on top of the latest information and industry news. Surveying donors, stakeholders and clients is also a way to gather timely insights. Transparent and frequent communication with donors and clients can provide a sense of stability. Gaining new knowledge demands asking insightful questions to create a better understanding.

Moore, L. D. (2015). Leadership in the 21st Century Environment; A Proposed Framework. (Online) Available: (Accessed: May 20

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

Shina, R  & Shina, S  (2020).  Managing in a VUCA World: Possibilities and Pitfalls (2020).   Journal of Technology Management for Growing Economies 11(1)