Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Right Sizing Your Nonprofit

In Cures for Ailing Organizations I emphasize the importance of appropriate size for any organization working for positive change. Too often, nonprofit leaders get stuck on a fixed image of their organization that does not match its strongest structure.

I’ve encountered both extremes. Some leaders of very small nonprofits believe their organization should be massive with a downtown office, lots of equipment, and an army of staff. Perhaps they are enamored by another nonprofit with this sort of structure, but don’t recognize the differences. Such leaders become obsessed with fundraising and are the most vulnerable to chasing down and accepting inappropriately earmarked funds. When such funds are accepted, they can derail the organization into unrelated work or worse, set them up for years of legal battles.

On the other extreme, are leaders of thriving, medium or large nonprofits who decide that downsizing or merging with another organization is the best move. Sometimes this is so. But too often, these sorts of decisions come from laziness. Such leaders are not good at working in a team or reaching out for helpers. Others never understood the mission of the organization and simply can’t articulate it to attract helpers. They believe that every new effort will mean that they have to do all the work. And so cancelling programs and events or even transferring resources to another organization seems like their only choice.

There’s no need for all this strife and wasted energy as long as you take an honest assessment of your organization’s purpose and match it to the appropriate structure.

If your group came together to accomplish just a few specific projects in your community, perhaps a community garden and an annual event for educating the public, there is no reason for staff or an office. Share the load among your team and keep reaching out into the community for more helpers to ensure the success of the garden and events.

However, if your nonprofit was founded to tackle an entrenched injustice, perhaps gang dominance or animal cruelty, then know that you and your team will have to build a strong structure complete with office, staff, engaging website, and frequent media and communication campaigns in order to turn your particular societal tide.

In the book, I use a star analogy to show what I mean by appropriate size. New stars are nebulous, just like new organizations, and both can vanish with the slightest disruption. All nonprofits go through this stage, but it’s vital to move through it as fast as possible. Knowing how large your organization needs to be to accomplish its mission will help focus your limited resources in the right direction. For small community organization, that will include passing clear, concise bylaws that spell out your purpose, roles of leaders, and how leaders are chosen. This will prevent self-interested people from taking over the organization.

On the other extreme of the star analogy are the red giants. These are stars that have grown so large they hardly give off any light or energy. Instead, they turn inward and consume themselves forming a hard outer shell. The relation to oversized nonprofits is very disturbing. Here’s how I describe it in the book:

“…There is indeed a desperation about red giant organizations. They seem to believe that as long as everyone who works for them is doing something, they’re okay. Yet if you ask people outside the organization what it has done to benefit its target community, no one can say. Much like red giant stars, these organizations usually create hard, exclusive shells that prevent people from getting involved or learning much about them. Instead, they focus inward using exclusive jargon to create extravagant materials that justify their existence. And just like red giant stars, these massive, expanding organizations eventually run out of internal energy, their hard outer shells collapse and, in their desperation, they grab at other organizations, stealing credit for the others' work…”

The important difference between stars and nonprofits is that all stars will eventually become red giants, but nonprofits have the choice not to.

The aim for any healthy nonprofit should be the type of star that is between these two. Much like our own sun, these stars give off the same amount of energy they produce and with this balance, they can look forward to a long life of benefiting their target community.

So how can you gauge whether or not your organization has settled into the appropriate structure? Ask yourselves these questions:

·         Have you established strong bylaws and are you following them? If not, you are still in that dangerous nebulous stage.
·         With a clear picture of the goals needed to reach your purpose have you and your team mapped out the structures and steps needed to reach them? If not, do so right away before chasing after any inappropriate funding.
·         Are any of your leaders fed up with doing too much work? Then take an honest look at how all of you have been communicating with your constituents. There is a reason people are not offering to help. Find it or you will fall into the red giant danger zone.

There are many other signs of inappropriate size. Please email me at sue{at}onestreet.org if you think I can help or leave your concerns in the comments section.

Also look for the positive signs that you and your team have hit that right-sized sweet spot. Here’s how I describe it in Cures for Ailing Organizations:

“…Health is easy to identify. We are attracted to it and seek simple ways to achieve it. By now you should have several healthy organizations in mind; perhaps a charter school, a dog owners’ club, a neighborhood watch group or a gang intervention organization. Their boards are strong and working as a team with the executive director. Each executive director is confident and comfortable in his or her position. Appropriate candidates for the board are regularly invited to take part in activities and learn about the organization before being invited to serve. The organization is following a plan that aligns with its mission. Start a list of your favorite healthy organizations so you can refer to them as you work through this book and bring your organization back to health. Consider how they present themselves and attract great people to help their efforts. Reach out to them and note how they communicate with you. Use them as your models for your own organization…”

If you already enjoy this sort of a supportive and gratifying atmosphere you can rest assured that you and your team are making the right decisions and ensuring the long term health of your organization.

Do you have healthy nonprofits in mind that you would like to share and some details about how you think they reached this point? Please share them in the comments section.


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