Just like humans, nonprofits go through distinct life passages until they reach maturity. And just like humans, there are distinct behaviors that must happen in one phase before moving to the next. Nonprofits begin in infancy, as we all do, then become toddlers and adolescents before reaching the prime of life and maturity.
During infancy, the nonprofit’s founders are in charge of everything and organizational management is often in crisis mode. There is no long-term planning or paid staff. The organization often survives on the founders’ commitment and their ability to raise all the money the organization needs. As an organization transitions from infancy to the toddler phase, everything is a priority; there is a lack of clarity around communications, goals, responsibility, and authority; infrastructure is weak; and the sole focus is growth. When it becomes a toddler, the organization hires its first staff, has high energy, and day-to-day crises no longer require all of the founders’ attention.
To be successful as a toddler, the organization’s staff needs to add structure; focus on strategic priorities; begin delegating responsibility; and institute a more professional management approach. The board needs to become strategic in recruiting board members; develop job descriptions for board and committee positions; develop policies; establish goals and metrics; and clarify and showcase its values.
Adolescence may be characterized by internal conflicts between those who want uncontrolled growth and those who want to get organized. Written plans, systems and procedures, and a more organized approach to fundraising defines this phase. To survive adolescence, an organization must bring order and discipline to its work without sacrificing innovation and risk-taking. It is during adolescence that the board should assume more responsibility and control, despite the fact that founders may find this threatening.
When an organization reaches its prime, talented staff and volunteers work well together; innovation occurs within established systems; there is predictable growth; conflicts are resolved in a healthy manner; and board and staff are fully engaged in fundraising. When it becomes mature, the organization achieves financial strength and optimal growth; programs and services are popular and financially supported by donors in the community; and there is a great need to stay in close contact with donors and other constituents to keep them excited about the organization’s work. Unless the organization continually reinvents itself and focuses on innovation after it has reached this level of stability, it will begin to age and may ultimately die.
There is great variety in the current life phases of Sonoma Valley’s nonprofits. In a recent discussion among Sonoma Valley nonprofit board leaders, Chuck Levine, board president of the Valley of the Moon Natural History Association, said, ”We have actually moved from maturity to being a toddler again.” He added that when his 35-year old organization separated from State of California management last year, they had to have board members conducive to their new mission, so board recruitment became critical. Tim Boeve, president of the Sonoma Valley Teen Services board, stated, “We are moving from being a toddler into adolescence. We now have our first executive director and I am confident her vision and drive will move the organization forward.” He commented that the board is becoming more focused on effective governance practices. WillMar Family Grief & Healing Center’s new board president, Paula Moulton, said, ”We’re in our adolescence. Our biggest issue is the fact that we’re growing and we have to manage decisions about the risks that come with growth.”
It is wise for the leadership of a nonprofit organization to periodically assess its current life phase and develop strategies to thoughtfully and successfully move to the next phase when the time is right.
Dr. B.J. Bischoff is the owner of Bischoff Performance Improvement Consulting, a Sonoma firm specializing in building the capacity of nonprofit organizations and public sector, assisting with strategic planning, training, performance improvement, fund development, and community relations. She is President of Impact100 Sonoma and leads the Sonoma Valley Presidents Council and serves on the Sonoma Upstream Investments Portfolio Review Committee as an appointee of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors. Contact her at [email protected]