Guest Column – Central office can be key

By Jim Koger

Many nonprofit organizations have a network structure, characterized simply by a number of local chapters, offices or clinics connected by a central site where executive decision-making and governance take place.

Whether this central site is called the secretariat, regional office, national headquarters or, less formally, the mothership, it generally plays two distinct roles for the affiliates. Those consist of providing services and benefits, such as centralized back-office functions, assistance in fundraising, program management, and technical assistance and, perhaps more importantly, serving as visionary leader.

In these fiscally challenging times, many organizations are struggling to make do with less, or even to keep the doors open.

While the secretariat may be called upon to provide special support services in times of need, through an advocacy campaign, targeted technical assistance or even supplemental grant making, it must not lose sight of its role as leader.

In fact, the leadership role is never more critical than during a crisis, especially a financial crisis.

Scarce resources require difficult decisions, and the secretariat must guide the affiliates through this process.

Secretariats have a natural tendency to concentrate on damage control or put out fires, often devoting a great deal of resources to a handful of high need affiliates, with the unfortunate result being organizational stagnation or decline.

When change is given but success uncertain, the secretariat must find time in its busy schedule to reassess its vision, a desired future state significantly and apparently different from its current state, and to communicate that vision to the affiliates.

Not only will this focusing of energies inform the allocation of limited human and financial resources, it also will enhance development efforts.

Potential donors, not to mention the members of the organization themselves, will be more easily persuaded by requests for support in achieving a bold vision than by requests for support to help mitigate financial losses.

Jim Koger is program manager for the Medical and Health Research Association of New York City and a graduate student in the master’s degree program in the School of Public Health at Columbia University.

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