Triangle Community Foundation President Andrea Bazán offers tips for maintaining mission and passion in a growing nonprofit.
Almost every nonprofit starts with volunteers and a volunteer board.
One of the mistakes I’ve seen with some groups that started as volunteer efforts is that they get their first grant and immediately hire a professional staff- thereby depleting funds quickly.
That first period, when a group is run by a volunteer board, is usually when an organization really sets its roots down, develops and implements a mission, and gets to know the community it’s serving.
It’s also a period of time when fundraising is important- as well as testing the waters to see what appeal the focus of the organization will have for donors.
An organization has to grow or it will become stagnant, but those early years are crucial for long-term sustainability.
The vision, energy and passion of the folks that are involved at that fundamental level of creation must be captured and passed on.
Not all organizations grow large. Indeed, some of our best groups are those that are still volunteer-led.
But, as a group transitions from a volunteer base to a more-structured organization, one does have to start thinking about the serious side of running a nonprofit – audits, legal issues, new benefits for staff, and working with a more formalized board of directors.
As organizations grow and their structure becomes more bureaucratic, with more administrative staff at the top, there will be more pressure to raise money to attract and keep that administrative staff.
Those who get out and work in the community and those who stay in the office all day may also find they have less in common than before.
It is important to make personal connections with and among the staff. The group needs to keep things in balance by maintaining the organization’s history as it continues to grow.
The challenge is to keep that genuine image and the trust of the community. For example, you’ll have to develop a new fundraising strategy to match your growth, but be sure that it’s one that really aligns with your values. And your revised fundraising strategy should reach out to new supporters with varying giving abilities, in addition to keeping the old ones.
If you’re dealing with an underserved population, that $15 you were asking for from your early constituents should still be $15, and equal appreciation should be shown for those original, small-time donors as for major gifts by new supporters.
Keeping staff motivated
Inevitably you will have some staff turnover, but that’s not always a bad thing.
A founding staff is attracted by an organization’s mission and the excitement of starting something new, but may not have skills in areas such as fundraising and human resources, where things are now very regulated by the government.
Many times, the staffers brought on initially have to expand their skills in these areas while maintaining their original passion.
Leaders often have things to learn as well. As a leader myself, I had two masters degrees, but they didn’t include nonprofit management. I had to learn it all on the job, through colleagues, and by making plenty of mistakes along the way!
Resources for professional development
Professional development doesn’t have to cost $1,000, which is often what people think. There are many other ways to get that training.
Good sources for developing new skills include the growing number of nonprofit news and resource publications, continuing studies or certificate programs in nonprofit management at local universities, nonprofit professional organizations, and local community foundations.
An even cheaper option is to go to another nonprofit and spend time with a colleague who excels in an area you’d like to learn about, or who has dealt with a problem similar to the one you’re currently facing.
Keep the family spirit
Organizations are like people – they’re living things. Many evolve in very high-demand, high-pressure situations. In addressing tremendous needs in the community all day long, it’s important that their staff be cohesive, boards be stable, and leaders be positive motivators.
As you’re moving from an organization that didn’t have many resources to one that has more, it’s important to keep hold of that spirit of family that such close work breeds.
Instead of being able to sit at the kitchen table with three people, you may have to squeeze in 25, but you still can sit at that table just the same.
Andrea Bazán is president of the Triangle Community Foundation in Durham, North Carolina. She previously served as the first executive director of El Pueblo, a North Carolina advocacy and public policy organization.