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What to do when your operating model is no longer fit for purpose

March 14, 2024

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Lars Peter Nissen

Executive Director


Sarah Le Pape

Senior Manager, Communications & Content, France


Chris Proulx

Chief Growth Officer, US

When does a hosted project need to become its own NGO? 

This was the challenge faced by ACAPS. Started as a consortium and then hosted within the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), ‘ACAPS’ (originally standing for Assessment Capacities Project) primarily focuses on informing crisis responders worldwide with independent data and analysis. However, as the team grew in proficiency and size, governance complexities were limiting growth, speed, and editorial independence.  

Join us as we catch up with the Director of ACAPS, Lars Peter Nissen, to explore the organization’s journey and its business model transformation.  

How a good idea can evolve into a different business model  

ACAPS emerged as a way to provide an independent analytical voice in the humanitarian sector through insightful reports on global crises. Their premise is that humanitarian responses will be more effective if they’re based on timely analysis and clear data

“It’s very easy to get caught up in the analysis bubble and write beautiful poetry that nobody ever uses for anything. So, we work with that tension of providing high quality evidence that is ‘good enough’ and timely so our work can inform decision makers and have impact. Some people think we are like a think tank, but we’re much more like a do tank. We do our quickest product in 24 hours. Our slogan is, ‘See the crisis, change the outcome’.” – Lars Peter Nissen

Initially structured as a consortium with three organizations managing implementation, Merlin handled training, HelpAge International led the overall management and strategic positioning, and NORCAP (NRC’s standby unit) took charge of deploying staff globally. Nissen was responsible for leading a project support unit.

Within two years, realizing the model was too complicated, ACAPS shifted to a hosted project within NRC. Despite the change, the term “consortium” and the governance model remained, leading to ongoing challenges in mobilizing and executing decisions.

The stronger the brand grew, and the stronger our role grew, the more it became clear that it wasn't enough for us to say that we were independent; we actually had to be independent.

Lars Peter Nissen 

How to shift your organizational model while staying on mission

It became increasingly apparent that the administrative systems designed for a large organization like NRC were not aligning with the needs of ACAPS, a smaller, agile entity. Nissen observed the challenge of maintaining parallel systems within the larger structure while preserving ACAPS’ distinct culture.

Over time, ACAPS highlighted concerns, especially pertaining to the outdated operational and governance model that wasn’t keeping up—with staff growing from five to 130 employees. Conversations also turned towards a need for a bigger and more diverse board. With that, Nissen and his colleagues stressed the importance of having people who understand data and decision-making.

NRC has incubated a project that was so successful that we burst through the limitations of what was possible the way it was set up originally. When we started, we never foresaw it being so big. I never dreamed of that.

Lars Peter Nissen 

With Nissen as well as the consortium board members recognizing the need for structural change and an evidence-based discussion, ACAPS enlisted the operational and governance expertise of Humentum and its consultants. This move signaled its commitment to alignment between its governance, structure, and mission.

Charting change and taking decisive action

Firm in their belief in needing a more autonomous and responsive structure, Nissen emphasized maintaining the status quo was not an option. In considering potential outcomes, the focus was on having Humentum present clear options and their consequences. Whether staying within NRC or becoming independent, each choice – governance, risk levels, and operational agility – needed to be outlined clearly.

Acknowledging the limitations of an internal evaluation, ACAPS identified the need for an objective analysis that could both assess their operating model structure and the unique challenges faced by the NGO sector. This realization led to ACAPS and Humentum launching a comprehensive review process to navigate a path forward.

“We agreed it was time to do things right. Understanding the financial risks was crucial if we were serious about a major shift, like moving from hosting to independence. So, we decided to bring in an external perspective.” – Lars Peter Nissen

Key lessons when changing structure

Throughout this process ACAPS remained committed to its core purpose: providing timely, reliable, and actionable information to improve humanitarian action. ACAPS’ journey offers valuable insights for other organizations contemplating a shift from a hosted project model. Here are some key takeaways:

  • Remember your mission: Amid the challenges of growth and change, prioritize your objectives. As Nissen emphasizes, “The purpose was never forgotten. We recognized how the evolving institutional arrangement began to constrain our ability to stay true to that purpose and adapt to our learning.”
  • Navigate success: What started as a solution may deviate from the original idea. As such, it’s crucial to adapt and remain flexible as projects evolve and scale successfully.
  • Nurture open communication: Cultivate a collaborative environment where all key stakeholders are involved in shaping the project’s future. This is key in maintaining alignment and driving progress.
  • Know when to let go: This process requires a willingness to reevaluate the entire system and make tough decisions. Recognize when it’s time to transition from a hosted-model project to ensure long-term sustainability.
  • Engage external expertise: ACAPS enlisted external assistance to review its operational and governance structures. This external perspective provided valuable insights and recommendations, facilitating informed decision-making.

The purpose can be lost if the focus shifts from transformative goals, like reshaping the humanitarian narrative, to routine tasks, such as generating more reports. You must dig deep and ensure the core goal remains intact and adaptable. This approach prevents the initiative from becoming a series of sterile processes implemented in a hamster wheel that just turns faster and faster.

Lars Peter Nissen 

In summary, ACAPS’ trajectory underscores the crucial importance of strong leadership and governance capabilities that remain agile and equitable in times of change. By remaining true to their mission and rigorously evaluating their operating model, ACAPS have positioned themselves well to navigate challenges and successes, now and in the future.

Is your leadership team grappling with how to embrace local leadership, encourage equitable partnerships, adapt strategy, scale, or navigate funding shifts?

No matter the challenge, Humentum offers expertise and experience to help align your operating model with your vision. Get in touch for practical solutions that address your organization’s needs.

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