Is growing our nonprofits imperative to achieve our missions?

A 3 by 3 grid of brown cardboard planters, with small green seedlings in 8 of the 9 planters. In the background is a white wall with a green hose running along the planters. | Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash.

If your business is helping people, don’t you want to help the most people you possibly can?

Not every organization should grow. At least, not in the most common sense of becoming larger.

But every organization does grow, from an idea to anything that involves anyone other than the person whose brain thought of it. And any organization whose leaders are truly interested in accomplishing the mission will grow by learning and evolving.

In some ways, growth as a non profit is similar to business growth.

Growing requires risk. It requires capital. Doing more, whether it is expanding your services in depth or volume, requires structures and processes that you may not have previously needed.

In other ways, it’s very different. There is not a direct line between how good your services are to how much revenue you raise. (Okay, to be fair, this is not entirely the case in business either but there is usually at least a relationship between the user and the client., if they are not one and the same.) More importantly, a business doesn’t have to justify investing more capital to build capacity for growth the way a nonprofit organization does.

On the other hand, somebody might suddenly send you an extremely large check and tell you that they trust you to use the money however you think is best to help your mission-driven organization make a bigger impact. (Probably not, but we can dream, right? Or maybe it’s not a check, it’s a Bitcoin donation!)

Capacity building is as sexy to most donors as maintaining bridges, but nonprofit leaders must think about the organization’s future. In some cases, it might be a founder considering how the organization will live beyond her. In others, it might be how to meet the evolving needs of the community it serves. Deepening the level of impact. For others, it may be scaling a successful program model across a state or a country.

Regardless, there are a few questions every mission driven organization should be asking, not to mention actively planning to answer.

What does our leadership pipeline look like?

Succession planning may be a more obvious consideration for organizations that are still being run by their founders, but even then, this should be asked regardless of the founder’s age. As with companies, leaders grow and sometimes we even outgrow the organization we have started — or it can outgrow us. Even if your organization is celebrating its golden anniversary, it’s important to develop future leaders. Not only because it is crucial to building organizational capacity, but because it is the right thing to do.

This is the future of work in the non profit sector. We cannot say we are committed to equity and inclusion without changing our broken professional pipelines. We must be strong enough leaders to know when to step aside. We all stand to gain from having more leaders ready to rise to the challenge.

Are we leveraging our knowledge and the knowledge within our field? Does our team have the information needed to perform at its best?

As our scale grows, it becomes increasingly essential to build structures to manage institutional knowledge and to ensure the flow of information throughout our organizations. It’s easy for everyone to stay in the loop when there are half a dozen of you huddled around a table. As a team grows, the more intentional that communication needs to be. Are there designated communications channels and systems for various purposes (e.g. team meeting notes, decisions, scheduling, policies, photos and digital assets)? Do you have any method to your file management? Would a new hire be able to find the 501(c)3 letter?

Look externally. Does your team engage in professional organizations or even regular coffee with peers? Would it be strange to share an article on an innovative communications strategy, or is this encouraged and expected? If there isn’t time to learn how we might do it better, there isn’t time to do things right.

Is monitoring and evaluation driven by fundraising or the mission?

The need to demonstrate efficacy to donors is real and valid. However, we need to move beyond the starvation cycle of tracking program impact insofar as it is required of us to report to funders. Certainly, honor grant agreements. But also help funders appreciate that your organization is willing to learn and to apply new knowledge, as we will all benefit from increasing the knowledge of how we can most effectively effect the change we wish to see in the world. Additionally, organizational learning should not be limited to programs; we should strive to learn across all aspects of our operations. But we will not learn if we do not prioritize circulating data and learning throughout our teams.

Is our fundraising driven by fear or by the desire to engage others in achieving our mission?

We’ve all gotten the hard sell from a desperate salesperson and we all hate it. It’s understandably nerve wracking to watch an increasing gap, to have to turn people away, or to think about all the lost opportunities. It takes longer tofind the people whose goals align with our mission. Yet letting others in our vision will be more effective in the long run.

Ultimately, if our organization is to grow in the future, we must inspire others to get behind our visions.

Are we using technology strategically?

Often IT seems like another overhead line item. In terms of money and decision-making, we often treat technology the way we treat office supplies: we buy what is cheapest and what we must.

And yet we, like everyone else, often expect technology to perform magic as if it were another nonprofit unicorn in our arsenal.

Effective use of technology, like effective use of any of our other resources, requires that IT be treated as an opportunity. It needs to be planned for and managed like other aspects of non profit operations.

Are we asking for help when we need it?

Growth must be supported with infrastructure to be sustainable.

Maybe we don’t yet have everyone we need on the team. Maybe we need help figuring out structures that support internal communications, a healthy leadership pipeline, vision-based fundraising, or how to strategically use technology. Remember that there are communities of peers who have been through this and are happy to share their expertise. Remember that there are consultants and freelancers who can help you build capacity as your mission driven organization grows toward that brighter vision you’re working so hard to make real.

This article was written by featured writer, the always amazing Janice Chan.

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