What, So What, Now What

by freya October 19, 2022

In 2022-23, Rotary Charities is experimenting with working more “out loud” by sharing some of our tools and processes, questions we’re asking ourselves, and our work in progress. In this blog, our Director of Systems Change & Learning, Freya Bradford, first shares some of the results of our Changemaker Needs Assessment and then explores a process we are trying to apply learnings like those and the questions it is bringing up for her.    


Rotary Charities completed a Changemaker Needs Assessment in early 2022 to better understand how individuals and organizations were faring, the challenges they faced, and how we might better support changemaking work in the region. We received 209 responses from changemakers all over our service area representing nonprofit organizations, units of government, businesses, foundations, and more.   


The Changemaker Survey is a key source of vital information that we use to adapt our work to better meet the needs of the region. Several key patterns emerged from the data.   

Nonprofit organizations are experiencing significant human resource challenges. Respondents report an increase in burnout (52%), difficulty recruiting staff (47%), and a decrease in volunteers (40%). This is in the face of increasing demand, a trend 90% of respondents predict will continue in the next year. Despite these challenges, most organizations increased programming or improved or adapted existing programs. Other adaptations were made to adapt to COVID-19 and improve employee satisfaction like flexible scheduling and work environments (67%), adjusted pay scales and workload expectations (36%), or new benefits (28%). 

Organizations are increasing their focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). The large majority of respondents indicated that their organization had increased their focus on DEI in the last two years (69%), many of them with outside help. Changes resulting from the work varied from increased learning; changes to mission, vision, or goals; changes to programs or services; or operations changes to things like hiring or board composition. Despite this progress, many reported barriers to engaging more deeply, including a lack of board support, a lack of funding for assistance, or not knowing where to start. 

Networks and coalitions are a popular way to organize work around community goals in the region, but many challenges persist. More than three-quarters of respondents (76%) reported participating in at least one network or coalition working together on a common goal. The majority report wanting to do more collaborative work to change the upstream causes of complex problems (systems change work). However, many barriers to this type of work persist, including a lack of funding, turfism or competition for resources, and a lack of accountability for the additional work created by the collaborative.   

A full report can be found here



Moving from Insight to Action 

Data like this from the Changemaker Needs Assessment is a critical input for Rotary Charities. We’ve long used data to inform our approach, but over the last few years, we have been more intentional about trying to adapt more rapidly.  

Lately, we have been using a simple process called What, So What, Now What when we have new insights from things like surveys or After Action Reviews. The process helps create a bridge between insight and action. I was first introduced to this Liberating Structure through the Human Systems Dynamics Institute.  
The tool asks three primary questions that we record in three columns.  

WhatSo What?Now What?

What insights stood out from the data?  
Or if after an activity or event: 
What did you observe, what did you hear, what did you feel, what are others saying? 

Why is that important?
What patterns or conclusions might be suggested?
What might be contributing to the patterns?
What might they be contributing to?  

What might we do/try to shift to a different (healthier/more desirable) pattern? 


We use What, So What, Now What (W3) as a team, usually filling in the “What” column completely first and then asking “So What” and “Now What” of each insight. If you have a lot of insights at one time, like we did for the Changemaker Survey, it can be helpful to group insights into themes first. 

The following is an example from our W3 for the Changemaker Needs Assessment.  


WhatSo What?Now What?
The majority of NPO leaders have been in their current position for 5 years or less.
  • Reflects some kind of turnover; don’t know what is propelling that (retirements, burnouts, seeking higher paying/different job, opening of virtual options, more competition)  

  • Have also noticed this pattern on our job board and through our relationships with NPOs 

  • Institutional knowledge threatened  

  • EDs have to make new relationships over and over 

  • Collaborative work can suffer or drop off 

  • High impact on remaining staff 

  • Takes time for new leaders to get up to speed, make connections, build relationships with board – can be stressful, may reduce capacity for some time 

  • Investigate the issue more to find out why it is happening; what has been the behavior over time of this pattern 

  • Connect new leaders with each other; peer learning circles, help to build relationships (peer learning circles scored at the top of preferred methods for learning the last two surveys) 

  • Offer succession planning learning opportunities through the PD series and Capacity Assistance Pool (other data in survey points to majority not having succession plans in place, likely exacerbating the problem).  


To move from the columns to action, we added a prioritization and tracking process. 

A “What,” or insight or group of insights, rises to the top of our to-do list when it: 

  • Has a compelling “So What:” A pattern is suggested that is confirmed by other data. And/or there may be some urgency to try to intervene because the potential for impact is large or it is an opportune time to make a difference. 
  • Has a clear “Now What:” We have an idea of a change we can make to a practice or approach that is within our control and aligned with our mission, vision, budget, and timeline. Sometimes the “Now What” suggests significant changes to strategy or policy – we bump those questions up to the board.  

In the example above, we prioritized learning opportunities around succession planning by offering an upcoming workshop, “Managing Leadership Transitions & Building Your Organization for the Future.” We’re also exploring the idea of convening a peer learning circle for executive directors. Both of these ideas had complementary data in other parts of the survey and were aligned with our mission and budget.    

We have started moving prioritized “Now Whats” to a kanban board we call Adaptations in our project management app Asana. Each prioritized adaptation gets a card and is put in a column called “Ideas for Adaptation.”Each card includes the source insights (the What and So What) so we don’t lose our original inspiration. To move from the “Ideas” column to “Adaptations in Action,” the idea needs a staff champion. Once assigned, the card becomes a task that the staff member will manage with their other project tasks in Asana. When the adaptation is complete, the card gets moved to the “Adaptations Complete” column. In this way, we will have a record of all the changes we’ve made and why, making our guiding principle of adaptation more visible and manageable.  


Untitled design (13).png 


Managing our adaptations like this is still very new, and we will surely learn much as we go. For now, the questions that have been coming up for me as we accelerate this ability to adapt:  

  • Is there an optimal balance between time spent learning and adapting and time spent doing and delivering? What is too much change? And what might signal it? 
  • Is the time of “best practices” over? In other words, are we post the time where someone finds out what works and then just repeats and scales it? Or are the new “best practices” the replication and scaling of the learning practices that allow us to adapt anything to changing conditions and contexts?  
  • How do we remain mindful of different tolerances for rapid change, group reflection processes, and tracking?    

How does this resonate with you? Do you have a process for turning new ideas into actions? I’d love to hear from you!   

Freya Bradford is Rotary Charities Director of Systems Change & Learning. She can be reached at  


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