Making an inspiring vision and planning how to get there...
April 21, 2006 2:29 PM   Subscribe

Nonprofit strategic planning and leadership skills. The groups at the forefront of environmental thinking today (or any cause, really) -- how did they become the visionary leaders? How did they get their power? Why are they considered one of the "big players?"

I'm working with a small nonprofit. How do we go from being five people with a good idea (an idea bubbling up all over, but that no group has yet taken the lead on) to becoming regional or national leaders?

We had a budget of about $30,000/yr for 2 years, but the money went to project consultants, so we're still at the "kitchen table" stage. We've finished that project -- we are ready to expand our mission and role -- but we are a bit at a loss for how to do that.

The big picture seems a bit too big for us, but what we've been doing seems too small. I hear the greatest cause of nonprofit failure is expanding too rapidly. But right now, we're more likely to fail from disinterest and loss of momentum. And I always remember the quote: "Make no small plans..."

Clarifying a bigger vision and doing strategic planning for it? Developing institutional capacity? What relationships to develop with other groups (groups our size, smaller groups, bigger groups)? How fast to expand?

This won't be the last startup I'll be involved in, so I'm really interested in learning how all this works. Books, websites, leadership training for young professionals? Etc. I mentioned environmental groups, but any type of cause is fine -- I'm interested generally in nonprofit development, strategic planning, and personal skill-building.
posted by salvia to Work & Money (8 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Salvia, although I don't know much about San Francisco, I'd expect that California would have a similar organization to the Maine Association of Nonprofits, which provides a lot of training and leadership to our nonprofit community here.
posted by miss tea at 2:33 PM on April 21, 2006

The big picture seems a bit too big for us, but what we've been doing seems too small. I hear the greatest cause of nonprofit failure is expanding too rapidly. But right now, we're more likely to fail from disinterest and loss of momentum.

Never forget that if you're doing something worthwhile, the size isn't very important. In short, if your group is consistently doing good, small things, you will be able to use that track record to attract more funding and opportunities.

At the same time, that track record will also allow you to get some media coverage of your successes, which will also help you attract more funding and opportunities.

Do not make the mistake of over-extending yourself into areas you're not prepared to excel in, or your track record will be broken. I'd certainly be much more likely to donate money to a group that successfully planted hundreds of trees a year for several years in barren neighborhoods than one that once unsuccessfully attempted to plant 5000 trees throughout a barren city, for example.

Those people I know who have successfully operated within the not-for-profit world have one thing in common: the reputation they established by doing things well -- regardless of size -- opened the doors to expansion and opportunity that had been previously closed.
posted by davejay at 2:50 PM on April 21, 2006

I worked for an environmental non profit during a period of expansion. From that, if I were to start a group of my own, I'd be very careful to have a clearly defined mission and set of goals and a commitment from those involved to stick with those goals. Focus focus focus. Include the input of your stakeholders, community members and likeminded organizations in your planning - what do they want? I am having a hard time articulating this, but it's hard to get anything done if you don't have broader support.

Also, there's a trend in start up non-profits to develop business plans -- to function more like businesses. I am not sure what I think about this yet, but I think it can certainly help with focus. This organization might give you some ideas. Good luck!
posted by nnk at 2:55 PM on April 21, 2006

I've served on the boards of a couple of nonprofits and worked on both a paid and volunteer basis for others (in Canada and the US) and I have never seen one that was NOT organized like a business with annual planning and a proper admin functions and everything. Even for very small organizations - this is important and even if it's just a separate hat that someone's wearing while doing a hundred other things, distinguishing the role is important.

The trick to a lot of this is that in no way does nonprofit = no money. There's no reason it has to, and there are many nonprofits that are very flush with money, pay competitive salaries, etc. Not ALL are like this, because the nonprofit space is really a very large catchall that covers many kinds of organization.

With that in mind, I think that it is far too easy for nonprofits to focus obsessively on "mission" and not nearly enough on the resources that it will take to do the good works. Obviously I don't know the details of the consultants you hired, but paying out that much money without witholding cash for the organization itself sounds like a recipe for suicide. Of course this is a challenge because many granting organizations specify that funds are not to be used for operations. But nevertheless...

So, long story short: 1. fundraising, grantwriting, and outreach is AS important if not MORE important than anything else you're doing, including the "mission" stuff (just as in any business, though in that case it's sales and marcomm). 2. Having the organizational capacity to deal with the allocation of funding in responsible, sustainable ways is critical.
posted by mikel at 8:32 PM on April 21, 2006

Thanks to everyone so far. I've really appreciated the suggestions.

mikel, I'm a little confused about your take. Did I say we mishandled funds? We have a very responsible person who wears the treasurer hat, and we dealt with the allocation of funding in "responsible" ways. Yeah, we basically spent the grant on project expenses in the way our grant proposal specified. We've gotten other small operations grants. But our problem is not so much "where do we get money?" as "how do we pick which of these projects to take on next?" Plus my bigger question about what makes the difference between the good and the great organizations. We're confident we can get grants once we are really clear on where we're going and what we're doing next.
posted by salvia at 1:03 AM on April 22, 2006

No - sorry I didn't mean to suggest that anyone did anything improper! I know that the terms and conditions of grants are often very constraining.

I just wanted to suggest that achieving sustainability in any kind of organization is difficult, and so focusing on that is very important. It's the foundation upon which will rest the other project-related work of the organization.

How to pick other projects? I agree with others have said, that having a clear mission or goal is important. There are many ways to go about putting that in place. Something I've been kicking around lately is to re-apply some of the approaches we've learned in web development - User-centered design in particular. I think "user-centered" doesn't have to apply only to design or whatever. It can also apply to marketing and maybe even organizational development.
posted by mikel at 5:23 AM on April 22, 2006

I work for a very successful environmental non-profit. We have grown and become successful by leveraging a lot of funding for our projects (which include outreach and research mostly) and having a large pool of volunteers to draw upon. We have also been very professional about our approach to things, allowing us to gain more respect regionally compared to other similar non-profits that have a reputation for being alarmist and unfocused.
posted by nekton at 9:18 AM on April 22, 2006

I agree with mikel that many non profits are organized like businesses but that many of them don't consider making money, other than following the whims of government or foundation grantmakers -- that's what I was trying to get at.

I would add that it is possible to get too caught up chasing the money to the point that you lose focus. The organization I worked for would at times, run down paths just because that seemed to be where the money was.

So I completely agree that picking the right projects is key. Why? Because you want to be succesful at what you do, so you don't want to take on more than you can handle and because you want to create a clear record of accomplishment that presents an image of what you stand for.

If you (i.e. your organization) can answer the question "what do you do?" In no more than 2 concrete sentences, "We remove trash from waterways" or "We counsel and provide referrals for bereaved people" or "We provide meals to families" or "We protect farmland in these three counties by providing financial incentives to farmers to preserve their farms." and for every project you do, that sentence fits, and you can quantify your results (we've cleaned up 25 miles of stream front, we've talked with 500 people this year, we've provided over 4000 meals in the past year, we've protected 2000 acres of farmland) I'd support your organization, and if I were a funder, or an potential partner working in the same field, I'd want to work with you.

So, as for picking the projects, if you've already got a clear mission, from the pool of potential projects, which one is going to best serve your mission, build on what you've done and provide results that will lead to more opportunities for you to do good work?
posted by nnk at 12:22 PM on April 22, 2006

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