Organizational Growth: Taking Your Nonprofit to the Next Level
How many nonprofits have you been associated with that have a dream to be bigger — and not just a little larger in overall operation but really big? And how many nonprofits have you been associated with that have actually done it?
Ever wonder why the number is so small? What stops nonprofits from making that transition — that leap into another category? There must be a moment or moments in time that divert the course for success for some but not others. Aside from all that "on the bus, off the bus" chatter, there is some magic that some nonprofits seem to find that evolves them to a completely different playing level. Or is there?
Having had the opportunity to work with nonprofits that hit huge growth periods and those that wanted to and talked about it but could never achieve that takeoff, I offer the following observations.
I'm not going to spend much time on this point. We all have relevant missions out there, or we wouldn't exist. But the reality is — because of time in history, really easy to explain case for engagement or powerful imagery — some nonprofits are positioned a little better than others. But I wouldn't rule out any nonprofit with the desire and some key ingredients to grow.
A desire to succeed
More importantly, a collective desire to succeed. If the organization is split on what the idea of success is, and if that disagreement is never confronted and met with a collaborative goal, it's destined to fail. When one or two people are dead-set against something, their power to stop it is amazing. So before you assert that you want to be big, your leadership and key support team members need to come to agreement, stand behind that goal, and get truly excited and committed to making it a reality.
Any nonprofit I've worked with that made that transition — that revolutionary leap in size — had one or two people really pushing forward the vision to do so. In some cases that person was the founder and in others a CEO, head of program or of development. It almost doesn't matter as long as that person has a skill set, ability to pull together the correct resources, and that spark or spirit to keep pushing forward. And for every organization lucky enough to have a visionary, it's imperative to have …
This is the person who helps the visionary stay on point, focused and building with the members of the organization who are most productive. The easiest way to detract an organization from a goal is to have a few personalities who just seem hell-bent on not succeeding — or at a loss as to how to even try! You know exactly who I mean! First there is the …
● "That's never going to happen around here … You never will get the board to agree to …" person. Hearing that 10 times a day could drive even Gandhi to give up and grab a nosh at Cracker Barrel! There's nothing wrong with a member of the team providing a little reality check. The problem with visionaries, after all, is that they sometimes get — well — visionary.
But a blocker can be an effective tool in weeding out what's just negative and what's really a risk. I could get all arm-chair Freud here and talk about the overriding personality traits of the naysayer, but I'll move on lest somebody decides to Freud me! But, the reality is these people are usually the most dangerous to seeing vision in the success. They slowly eat away at the excitement and passion until little is left. A blocker in a relationship like this is very important.
Moving on from the naysayer is the …
● "We need a protocol. We need a process. We need infrastructure. Everything is moving too fast … we have to slow down!" person. Also very valid, these types can be immensely helpful in exposing program weakness, poor building blocks that will cause problems when real growth hits, etc.
But if they walk around yelling about the fire and don't bring a hose and ladder to put it out, they're not very useful. A blocker can help direct and ask these folks to draft those crucial pieces of protocol for consideration. It gives the infrastructure to come forward with a plan a little more robust than Chicken Little's so the leadership can review and implement as changes happen — rather than before or after.
And lastly, we have the most well-meaning but equally troublesome …
● “I’m not sure what to do, so I’ll just sit quietly in the corner and wait for you to come tell me. Otherwise, I’ll just be here doing what I’ve always done” person. No. Unacceptable. Everyone in key roles in an organization that has agreed collectively to transformative change must contribute and must make his or her own work. And if someone is currently in a role he or she may not have the skill set to do … well … that's another point. But a blocker can encourage project development, offer continuing education opportunities, and keep these people engaged and moving forward with something new. What's the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.
Remember, the blocker may be the executive director and the visionary may be from development, HR or operations. Unconventional partnerships breed unexpected success. Don't always look to do things the way you've done them (see above for the definition of insanity).
Now that you have your visionary and blocker, you can look at the rest of your organization and tackle a few more very common and very challenging Holy Grails:
1. A wonderful, dedicated team of people who all roll up their sleeves and do what's asked (aside from one or two from the above list) and now need to see things differently. This is another key place I've seen growth fall apart in organizations. Say you have a fantastic program manager who also happens to like to write or take photographs or even worked at a previous organization in HR. Or the opposite, a great development person who decided to make the leap to field work but still manages the direct-mail program because he or she has the knowledge. Those roles need to be clearly, concisely and completely defined, and those roles and responsibilities need to be put where they belong.
It's uncomfortable just reading it, isn't it? You've been there before. We all have. Some of the most heartbreaking moments are when a practitioner from one area has to stand up to a well-meaning and passionate colleague and say, "Actually, that's my job." It creates a chasm immediately, and sometimes that trust is never rebuilt.
It’s natural. We don’t like to let go of things — even if holding on costs us a collective rate of growth because we can’t expand into the roles we’re most qualified and needed to do. I used to have a saying with team members: “Do your job. No, your job. Not mine, not his, not ours. If you think you’re better qualified, wait until someone gets beat down or quits and send in your résumé.”
It really is painful to watch a burgeoning nonprofit hit this rock wall over and over and over. If we spent more time thinking we’re glad somebody else is an expert in XYZ than taking a session at a conference and thinking we are now qualified to do XYZ, partnerships between divisions would be a lot smoother and the end result of changing the fate of whomever or whatever we serve would happen a lot quicker.
2. A general adversity and deep loathing of “change” of any kind. It’s human nature to some extent, and while it’s one of the key brick walls organizations hit, it’s also the easiest to overcome. Ask yourself, if you don’t change, what becomes of the mission you serve? If you are unwilling to see a future in which you are different, operate differently, perform differently, does it affect your organization’s ability to one day close its doors and go home? When you take a moment and consider the alternative, it becomes a little easier to accept that changing your organization really can change the world.
3. The leap organizations need to take with their donor files. Also a growth killer. The larger we become and the broader and less personal our marketing efforts have to be just due to size and management, the more people will complain. If your team, you or your board isn’t prepared to swallow that fact and build infrastructure to mitigate it, you become a program of one. You allow a very loud, single, angry donor or maybe a few donors you were able to have a more personal relationship with set the path of your program.
And before you try to tell me I don’t care about donor service … quite the contrary. We should absolutely be accountable to our supporters, responsive to their questions, respectful of their requests and transparent in our actions. But donors should not drive strategy, communications standards and overall program direction. Our job is to hire very smart people who know how to build these things and provide strong customer/donor support simultaneously to continue to grow.
It’s another one of those things that’s shocking to me: A nonprofit is willing to give up exponential growth opportunities to the voice of a few. With flag codes, analytics, donor modeling, inbound call centers and an influx of consumer experts into our world, it absolutely, positively does not have to be either/or.
If you make the choice to become “a program of one,” you can expect it will absolutely impact your vision and desire for growth. Nobody said the growth wouldn’t be respectful to donors. Just different.
4. The mix of talent, employees and skill set. This one is very hard and cuts against our compassion and hearts, which brought us all to this world in the first place. But we have to acknowledge that there may be a time in which the team you start with, no matter how good the members were at being a small nonprofit and how much they know about your organization, does not translate into the next generation of leadership.
It’s uncomfortable just hearing it and no need to elaborate. It is why we train, offer conference opportunities and hope the people we value the most elevate with us. Good visionaries and blockers make every opportunity available for that to happen. But if there is a time that comes in which those difficult and painful changes aren’t made, it either falls to one or two to carry it all, or the vision falls short.
If any of this sounds familiar to you, and you and your organization find yourselves stuck at any of these points, you know how frustrating it can be. The beauty of growth and change is you never know what role you may serve, so whatever presents itself — if you remember first and foremost to serve your mission — the rest is easy.
Good luck! There is a whole world of need out there waiting for the next big nonprofit. Hope it’s one you work for!
Jo Sullivan is executive director at Save the Chimps and a member of the FundRaising Success Editorial Advisory Board. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
So, I'm a fundraiser having a mid-life crisis. And that's perfectly fine with me.
I am taking time to look around, lift my head and find REAL people who really want to change the world. And people smart enough to do it. Join me in this fun journey. I have no idea where we will end up - and that is the beauty of it. I'm nonprofit passionate, a hopeful world changer, and always ready to share what I know, learn what I don't, admit when I can't, and ask the hard questions.
While you're looking around for other areas of inspiration, check out The Moth Project at themoth.org (the podcasts are AMAZING), TED talks (doesn't matter which ones - find topics that interest you) and Volunteer Voices (again - love the podcast) written by volunteers from the Peace Corps. Don't see the immediate connection to being a better fundraiser? Just listen, you'll hear the message ...