Nonprofit help.
June 18, 2009 6:23 PM   Subscribe

How can I turn this nonprofit around?

Three weeks ago, I got a job at a nonprofit organization that also runs a historic site. It's a great organization that has been around for decades. I'm the lone salaried employee and for the summer, I'm the boss of five awesome university students that I hired a week after I started.

The board are all pretty excellent people and they're always a cheery phone call or e-mail away, despite the fact that they all have very busy lives and careers. They are the first to admit that the place isn't very organized. They have been very receptive to my constant questions and suggestions, but I'm looking forward to the day when I don't have to call upon them quite so often. There have been a lot of "baptism by fire" jokes on their part, but they have all told me they're really pleased with what I have done in the last few weeks.

But I'm kinda terrified. The truth is, I've never really done anything like this before. A few months ago, I was making pretty cappuccinos, writing an MA thesis, and worrying about finding a real job when I was finished. Thanks Mefites!

Now I am juggling invoices, funding proposals, bank statements, staff schedules, tour bookings, and event bookings. I'm also revamping a website that hasn't been updated in two years, and trying to put out a quarterly newsletter that hasn't been out in a year. I could go on.

My predecessor left the office in a wreck. There's no sense of organization in the drawers and shelves full of files and I don't think this person ever deleted an e-mail or a Word document, nor did they throw out a ton assorted and outdated crap. I've managed to salvage what I've needed to get the job done on a day-to-day basis and the place is slowly and steadily becoming more organized. But I have a long way to go and my time is precious.

So yeah. How do I get this house in order? Please share some of that good ol' hive wisdom here - anecdotes, links, books, or whatever might be helpful. Thanks!
posted by futureisunwritten to Work & Money (14 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Just a quick question before I add some more thoughts a little later:
Those five awesome university students that you hired, is their time and job descriptions already taken full up with whatever they're supposed to be doing, or can you delegate some of these less-big-picture tasks to them (i.e. the bookings, or updating the website or the newsletter)?

Generally just wondering what they're doing already, and if they can help you with some of the more immediate needs, or if you're really on your own with the administration stuff.
posted by cheeken at 6:59 PM on June 18, 2009

Sounds like you can start by organizing things however you want! Put the Young 5 to work getting things in order, and as it all comes together you should be able to manage the mechanisms of the organization such that the Y5 can do a lot more of the work. To be frank, it sounds like you're not delegating very effectively and keeping everything on your own plate.

Event booking? Hand a skeleton plan to one of the kids. Tour booking? Same. Elements concerning finances you may want to hold close, but likely many things can be farmed out to the Y5.

While you're cleaning up you can create a list of priorities. For instance, you can use the old newsletter template for now rather than creating a whole new project around revamping it. The website also might fall down the list in light of funding and invoice chaos. Listen to comments and complaints from the Y5 to figure out if the priorities should be shuffled.

This sounds like a tremendous opportunity for you, though, especially since disorganization is a chief complaint I hear from people who work in the nonprofit world (besides the pay scale).
posted by rhizome at 7:06 PM on June 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

My boss was in a similar situation a few years ago and did manage to turn the nonprofit into a wonderfully organized place by the time I got there last fall. What you need to do right away is organize the junk- take a day or a few days and get actually organized, get your student workers to help, they can recognize some of the stuff as junk and ask you about the rest. Or make the board do, bring them in on the weekend buy them coffee and tell them they know what the org needs or doesn't need better than anyone. I can't tell you what a difference an organized office makes. Then put one of the students in charge of the website/newsletter, one of them should have some kind of skills in that area even if it's not professional quality. Finally after you get going if you still need some help, look into getting an americorps member to be a second employee. So that's a long post, but feel free to message me with more specific questions if you have them.
posted by entropyiswinning at 7:07 PM on June 18, 2009

Also, I'd tend to focus my first efforts on:
1) Things that will keep funding coming in
2) The smooth day-to-day operations of the actual work of the nonprofit
3) Paying the bills

So, if you're not getting too much return on investment for sending newsletters or updating websites, then I'd put those things on the backburner. Or if there's a substantial fundraiser or event coming up, then don't worry about getting the officework in tiptop shape until after that's done.

At this point, it's all about priorities, and figuring out what those are may come from asking your board, giving some thought to the mission statement, and, if there are any, reading through any stated outcomes (short-term/long-term) and then adjusting your workflow around the stated goals of the organization.
posted by cheeken at 7:12 PM on June 18, 2009

Best answer: A few years ago, I was promoted to a position of responsibility for a department that was not particularly well organized. One thing that helped me immensely was just making a map of everything I needed to think about.

I started with high-level headings like "relationship to the business", "strategy", "team", "policies", "procedures", "systems", "data", and "workload" just to name a few. Then I broke these down into more detailed items until I somehow felt like I'd drilled down far enough.

That gave me a master list of things to go through and ask myself, is this thing under control? And if it's not, what do I need to do to get control of it? And how important is it compared to all the other things that are out of control right now? Because you won't be able to fix everything all at once, but it feels better to know you're ignoring some things because you decided to, rather than because you forgot about them.

That is all big picture kind of stuff, but managing the workload is really important as well. Some things I am using for that right now are:

1) Keep "to do" lists, but minimize the number of them. Have just one for yourself, and if you manage a team, one list for the whole team.

2) Keep big projects separate from little tasks, and dedicate some time to whichever one is getting squeezed out of the schedule (e.g. book "project work" on your calendar if that's the one that keeps getting pushed aside. If you manage a team, have some people assigned to project work and some assigned to little tasks, and switch them around regularly.)

3) Make up a paper form to record new items for your "to do" list and take this with you everywhere. Write down absolutely every task that you or your team need to do on these forms and nowhere else. Once a day, copy new entries from the forms onto your main to-do lists and cross them off the paper form. This form is to record stuff when you are not able to update your to-do list directly (like in meetings or wandering the halls).

4) Use the "empty inbox" approach. When you get new e-mails, either act on them right away and file them, or put them into holding areas like "To Reply" and "Put on To-Do List". Once a day go through those holding areas and do what needs to be done. Just get them out of your inbox so you aren't looking at the same e-mails repeatedly.

5) If there are things you need to do every day, week, month, etc., make up paper checklists for these and check off items when they're done. If you can delegate some of these tasks to your team, the checklists helps you keep track that somebody has done each thing.

6) If there are things that trickle in constantly, like invoices to deal with, save them up for some period of time (like a week) and then work on them all in one shot.

7) Don't try to take on too many projects and major tasks at once. Keep them all on the list so they don't get forgotten, but only a handful of these should be "active" at once for each person.

8) However you track your to-do lists, make it really easy to assign bring-forward dates to tasks. Some kind of mechanism that allows you to mark that you've done all you're going to do for now, and get the item out of your way, but have it pop up again in a day or a week or whenever as a reminder to follow up. (For me this comes in the form of having my to-do list in an Excel spreadsheet with a bring-forward date column, conditional formatting to grey out rows where that date is in the future, and a macro button to set the date to "tomorrow").

9) Also make sure however you track your to-do lists, it's really easy to put things in the priority sequence that you want. Many tools I tried made this too difficult to control directly and I found I preferred to just manually sort things into the order I want. Excel worked as well as anything for that.

Somewhere in between workload management and the big picture are things like project management and team management. Maybe if you tell us a little more about the level of advice you're seeking, we can go into more detail at an appropriate level?
posted by FishBike at 7:13 PM on June 18, 2009 [3 favorites]

Yes, definitely delegate as others have said. Besides setting medium- and long-term priorities (mission, vision, etc.), are there any relationships in the community that you need to renew or establish? That's probably your job (and the board can hopefully provide some insight there too). Strong relationships with partners in the community can help quite a deal.

Sometimes the SSIR opinion blog has interesting, potentially useful entries. Rosetta Thurman has some interesting stuff on young nonprofit leaders. And the Nonprofit Finance Fund has tons of resources for nonprofits trying to get on their feet during/after the recession.

Speaking with peers can also help a lot. Are there nonprofit leaders in your community (or elsewhere that you know) that would be willing to talk with you about some of your work and ideas, leader to leader? They're often willing to share ideas and strategies.
posted by midatlanticwanderer at 7:18 PM on June 18, 2009

There are a couple associations that really helped me when I worked for a nonprofit. See if AFP and APRA have groups in your area. Both organizations host conferences and seminars that would be useful to someone new to the nonprofit philanthropic world, even if you don't deal directly with fundraising or prospect research. Some associations even have scholarships to join or to take classes. I would strongly suggest contacting an organization in your area to see if they have a mentoring program or if they can point you to someone who has worked in an organization similar to yours.

There are also several books out about how to work effectively with board members (I'm sorry I don't have a particular one to recommend).
posted by betsybetsy at 7:18 PM on June 18, 2009

Oh, in looking through my bookmarks, I've really liked the stuff over at Blue Avocado
posted by cheeken at 7:19 PM on June 18, 2009

Off of what betsybetsy said above, your statewide association of nonprofits will have similar resources for you. Definitely worth looking into.
posted by midatlanticwanderer at 7:24 PM on June 18, 2009

Best answer: I have total sympathy, as I walked into something similar (although nowhere near as bad) back in 2000. It took a serious commitment and several years, but I like to think that we are now running like a well-oiled machine. During those first years, though, our mantra was:

I know you want to remedy all the faults you see at once, but you have to prioritize or you will end up with nothing done. Start with the basics, the stuff that you need to do in order to keep going day-to-day. Get those processes (especially the paying bills, doing funding proposals, handling bank statements part) set up to your satisfaction. Figure out a system that will work for you, then implement it. Put the other stuff (the website, in particular, but also the newsletter) on the back burner for now. You can move on to those things when things have settled down and the day-to-day stuff is running smoothly. Finish dealing with one set of priorities before starting another.

This is where you can see the most immediate results. Take a look at the processes that are in place in your office. More than likely, there are lots of small improvements that can help you get more done. This includes things like creating templates for often-used forms, removing redundancies in procedures/forms/processes, cutting extraneous paperwork, etc. This might involve using some new technology solutions that were not available when the processes were first created (e.g. in my case, just implementing a central file server for digital files gave us a huge increase in productivity.) This should be an ongoing process for the entire nonprofit, but it is especially valuable now, as you have no emotional attachment to the "old" way of doing things.

By this, we meant unifying our internal systems to reduce redundancy and improve efficiency. For example, make sure that the digital file system mirrors the physical file system. That they both reflect the overall organization of the member database. That the templates for invoices include some of the same fields as those for the membership applications (and in the same order), etc.

Additional Thoughts
- I would (and did) start with the paper records. Figure out which records you have to keep, move the others to an accessible but out of the way location (like a storage area). Less clutter=more likely to find what you need right away.
- Use your interns/temporary staff. Think about which project would make the most impact (perhaps sorting through records and organizing by topic/year, or organizing a digital file system) and have them do that project. I had my interns revamp our member files one year, scanning some to digital-copies only and organizing the physical files. It was a huge help.
- Don't let it consume you. I could still work nonstop for months without running out of stuff to do, but it does nobody any good if you burn out. Steady and smooth does it.
- Useful resources:
Nonprofit Good Practice Guide
Nonprofit section at FindLaw
- Once you get everything running the way you want (in a year or two!), don't forget to document how things work, so that you never put someone else through that kind of "pick up the pieces" work in the future.

(To be honest, it kind of sounds like fun to me. I get bored with our well-organized, smoothly running office sometimes. But I'm crazy that way. Good luck!!)
posted by gemmy at 7:47 PM on June 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

Maybe have one of your college students start up a volunteer program - recruit some people and train them on some tasks that need to be done on a regular basis. Then when the college students are gone, you'll still have some awesome volunteers to help you out.
posted by at 9:16 PM on June 18, 2009

I agree with the above who said that you need to recruit awesome volunteers to help when the college students are gone. Also, do not let the Board completely off the hook. I'm the president of the board of directors of a very small nonprofit (presently with no employees) and we do everything ourselves--rather badly, truth be told. But, one of the things that happens with little nonprofits is that when they get to the point that they can hire someone they then dump everything on that person -- that person burns out and they are back where they started. Why did your predecessor leave? Does your Board have committees? Can you lean on your fundraising committee (if you have one) to help with your development work?
posted by fieldtrip at 10:42 PM on June 18, 2009

The hardest thing to get your head around may be that you're a small business. You happen to be a nonprofit, but you have to do all the stuff other small businesses do: taxes, payroll, A/P, A/R, HR, budgeting, planning, etc. Whether or not you and your (presumably laudable) mission succeed will mostly depend on whether you do all that stuff efficiently and effectively.

Here's a couple of links you may find useful:

The Nonprofit Blog Exchange is a very long list of blogs about nonprofits.

The Nonprofit Assistance Fund has a useful page of resources on financial management, including templates and spreadsheets.

The Nonprofit Quarterly and the NonProfit Times require subscriptions for their print editions, but have some free material on their websites.

If you search on Amazon, you'll find a number of nonprofit management books in print. Peter Drucker's is written from a business school perspective but is relatively accessible.
posted by johnwilcox at 12:41 PM on June 19, 2009

Response by poster: Wow, some amazing help here!

midatlanticwanderer and all who inquired about community partnerships. I have been meeting with all of our contacts in the community to better figure out their relationship with our organization. I also have a contact list started to figure out who does what and how we can work together. I have met or spoken over the phone with a ton of people in various related municipal, provincial, and federal organizations.

cheeken and all who asked about the student roles: First of all, the students are just finishing their first week of work. Since we run a historic site, their job description consists of interpreting the site to visitors and being present for special events, as well as site maintenance (we did some painting yesterday during a slow afternoon - looks great!) It has become clear to me that they could be doing more and the board is supportive of this (one of last year's employees came for a visit and told me "This was the best job ever. We just sat around and did nothing most of the time!" Um, okay...) I've had the summer students helping me with the filing and they are all interested in doing more, but they still need to be available on site to give tours, etc. I've made some changes to the schedule so I have at least one student in the office with me when things are slow at the site. They have a set number of hours to complete, as they are all partially funded through a federal student work program, so I have to keep that in mind as well.

At the end of each shift, I make up a to-do list of tomorrow's priorities. I also keep a to-do list of pending priorities, to keep my long and short-term goals in order. It's how I got through grad school and so far, it seems to be working out for me. I'm basically redesigning all of the forms and the whole organization process. The students have helped me get the office in order. Now the most pressing things are right at my fingertips, while something like the board meeting minutes from 1977 have been filed away.

The newsletter is a big priority for the board, as the back page is a membership renewal form and there has not been a new issue put out since last year. We also just had our big annual event and they want to get it out ASAP with coverage of the event before it fades from memory.

We had a board meeting a couple of nights ago - I sent out a list of things that need to be done and they were all on board (pun fully intended) with any changes I want to make. fieldtrip, to answer your question, the committees don't really seem all that active.

Mercifully, one of our board members is an accountant, so his office handles payroll - I just have to track and submit the hours. They also cut the cheques, but it's my job to handle the invoices and make sure the cheques get sent out.

The organization has been paying some outrageous fees for the web design and maintenance. We're setting up our own hosting and using a CMS. I already have the skeleton of the site put together and am in the process of moving content from the old site to the new.

My predecessor was let go a couple of weeks before I arrived for "not being a good fit" (read: they didn't do much).

Thanks for all the links to non-profit resources. I'm actually in Canada, but I'm sure there are similar organizations here so I'll be sure to look for them.

And yes gemmy, it is fun! I've learned so much in the last three weeks and what seemed like giant tasks then are now small, completed ones.
posted by futureisunwritten at 8:39 AM on June 20, 2009

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