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How to Manage Rapid Growth

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Special to the Philanthropy Journal

By Kathleen Ruddy

Rapid growth can occur for different reasons and in a variety of ways for nonprofits. For the St. Baldrick’s Foundation it took place during the infancy of our organization. As more and more people learned about our hands-on fundraising model—shaving heads in solidarity with kids who lose their hair during cancer treatments—it drove awareness of our mission to raise funds for childhood cancer research.

Today the head-shaving events are a signature for the Foundation, taking place around the world. When St. Baldrick’s was created in 2000, the concept of shaving heads to raise funds was novel and quickly caught fire. The result was rapid growth in the number of volunteers eager to host their own event. At one point each St. Baldrick’s employee was challenged to support more than 7,000 relationships with volunteer event organizers!

At the time, we asked three questions; how do we manage this growth; how do we best serve our mission by serving our volunteers, donors and staff; and how do we keep growing? Looking back, here’s where we made the most headway:

Invest in your mission, make the connection

The more we connected volunteers and donors to the mission, the more people were willing to do extraordinary things in service of it. Although we wish this wasn’t the case, virtually everyone knows an adult who has fought cancer but not as many may people not know a child that has battled cancer. However, one can imagine the toll that harsh drugs and radiation, not to mention surgery, can take on a child’s developing body. By nature we’re wired to protect children and their future, so the call to conquer childhood cancers resonates with person who hears it. Each organization needs to determine what call to action offers a deeply meaningful and transformative experience for volunteers and supporters. 

We offered people the opportunity to walk in the shoes of a cancer patient by allowing participants to experience baldness—by choice—realizing kids with cancer don’t have that choice. That’s the hand they’re dealt as a result of their treatments. It takes courage to alter your appearance so dramatically, so the gesture goes beyond empathy to understanding. Whatever mission you serve, you can find a way to help people experience what those you serve do. If you’re a homeless shelter, why not invite donors to spend a night? Food pantries can show donors how to make use of the few dollars that a single mom has to feed her kids for a week. 

When you’re successful, you still need to adapt and change, offering new engagement opportunities for those who are weary of your current menu or to attract those you’ve not yet engaged. For every business or organization, growth eventually slows. That’s why a few years ago we developed the “Do What You Want” events offering volunteers the freedom to create their own fundraising idea.  

Invest in your volunteers and donors  

Many nonprofits closely manage volunteers – requiring them to follow the organization’s script. We allow them the freedom to dream up a creative fundraiser as unique as they are. For example, we make it a point to let our volunteer event organizers (VEOs) build their events according to their vision. They raise the funds, rally the community and showcase the actual research funded, so by empowering them with the training and tools they need to succeed, volunteers “own” their results and grow from the experience making it more likely they’ll return.

Don’t forget your donors! Our model challenged us for a long time – it was hard, and still is, to have a meaningful dialogue with donors because we were blessed with so many volunteers. But we need both, and we’re getting better at serving donor needs too. With such a large percentage of donations transacted online now, it’s easy to adopt habits that treat gifts as transactions and donors as buyers. That’s really dangerous because people give to people. In our case, donors give to support their friend who is shaving his head. They choose to give online because it’s convenient, but it’s the personal relationship with the shavee that presents the opportunity for the organization to forge a lasting relationship with the donor.

Most nonprofits will never know their donors as well as they’d like, but we are in the business of serving our communities and cannot allow human interaction to disappear simply because we live in the digital age. I find people crave meaningful relationships and connection, after all, that’s what social media is meant to provide. We cannot solely rely on the digital realm alone to convey the impact an advocate for your organization has made for your mission.   

Invest in your staff

Taking a moment to celebrate each other’s success is extremely important. I didn’t always do this well.  I was so busy trying to get things done, I often assumed others knew how grateful I was. Even if they do know, it’s nice to hear. It’s like hearing someone loves you – it puts you on top of the world and you feel you can do anything. In the nonprofit realm, we lack the range of compensatory benefits the for-profit world has, so simple gestures are imperative.

Over the years we’ve instituted measures to habituate this at staff meetings or in employee newsletters or with written commendations. Employees also want to know you’re invested in their careers. We’ve grown our training programs to include year-round management training, to health and wellness and financial planning to ensure employees feel personally cared for as well as professionally developed.

Most of us have worked places where people were afraid to be constructively critical, so they didn’t voice what did or didn’t work and why, or what can be improved, or even ask, “Should we be doing this at all?” We’ve been working hard to encourage employees to step back and reflect on these questions and share their thoughts. 

Every day there are legitimate, urgent things that require our attention but developing the self-discipline to regularly ask these questions and test improvement strategies will help manage and stimulate the growth you need.   

Protect yourself 

In the several nonprofit director peer groups I belong to, there’s always one common struggle—Executive Directors and CEOs are spinning plates and being asked to solve the largest social problems of our age on a shoe string. It’s easy to lose sight of your own needs in the process, especially when staff needs help and the board wants growth. When resources are slim, who tries to fill the gap?  If it’s you alone, beware. That’s the time you need to say, “What can we stop doing,” or ask “What can wait?” Most of the executive directors I know are ‘change the world, let’s do it all’ types – full of drive, passion and energy. Since they are the answer for everything that does and doesn’t work many succumb to feeling success hinges on them alone, but trying to provide balance to others without maintaining it for yourself is futile and you’ll end up in the hospital or worse if you try.  Trust me.

If you need to grow to fulfill your mission, than you need to build a team where each member deploys his or her unique strengths in service of the mission and the team holds each other accountable to use their powers for good and not evil! 

Overall, invest in people – your board, partners, your staff, your volunteers, your donors and of course, those you serve. I feel both proud to collaborate with those who are taking childhood back from cancer and humbled to serve the children who are heroes to us all.


Kathleen Ruddy is CEO of the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, the world’s largest funder of childhood cancer research grants outside of the federal government. Kathleen believes in paying it forward, and enjoys managing and serving as a board member for the Foundation, in addition to being a two-time shavee, Do What You Want participant and active advocate for children with cancer.

One response on “How to Manage Rapid Growth

  1. Dana McCreesh says:

    what a fantastic piece!

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