Friday, November 25, 2011

Book review: Building Nonprofit Capacity

Since "slim pickins" again describes this week's list of potential shareworthy links, I'll switch things up and offer a book review instead.

I spent Thanksgiving day reading John Brothers and Anne Sherman's Building Nonprofit Capacity: A Guide to Managing Change through Organizational Lifecycles, thinking about how it should be "must" reading for our boards.  The topic - the shifting capacity concerns that arise across an organization's life - isn't board-focused. But it absolutely is an essential leadership responsibility that boards need to understand.

The subtitle describes the book's unique focus: exploring capacity needs within a lifecycle framework. Readers may have encountered the idea of nonprofits moving through a cycle from, roughly, growth through decline. I can almost guarantee that most of your board members have not encountered the idea - or that they've considered seriously where your organization might be in the cycle. That's a shame, because greater awareness of pretty predictable challenges - when you know to look for them - may lead you and your board to different decisions that change your trajectory.

The model used as the frame for this book include these phases:

Core: Defining the core vision, mission and values; launching the initial programs; and bringing on board those who share your passion for the future you're shaping. Organizations at the start-up phase begin here, but established organizations may find themselves back at this phase during periods of re-examination.

Infrastructure/Adolescence: As attempts to grow succeed, the need to expand the infrastructure to fulfill that capacity begins to become an issue. You may find yourselves in need of increased program staff, development resources to expand fundraising capacity, larger facilities, etc. You also may require a different kind of board, moving away from the hands-on activity of a start-up - and away from the founder's cheering section that he/she recruited in the first place. It's an exciting and scary time. It's also necessary to reach maturity.

Maturity/Impact Expansion:
Organizations and their boards may be tempted to relax a bit, as this is the phase where they experience stability. They've found their groove, they are providing credible services, and they have a respectable pool of resources. Boards in particular may be tempted to exhale, as they feel comfortable trusting professional staff to handle the day-to-day responsibilities and represent the nonprofit well. But complacency here is risky. It also misses the larger potential for this phase: the chance to focus on impact.

In some respects, decline is inevitable. Expecting to stay on the top of our game forever isn't realistic. The message that impacted me most as I read this chapter was that organizational leaders usually are shocked when evidence that their nonprofit is in this phase. I've been there as a board member. What isn't inevitable: a decline that ends in death. It's not easy, but boards and staff who are able to recenter, regroup, and take a different path.

Turnaround and Closing:
That action leading turnaround - or accepting the need to close - is the fifth phase of Brothers and Sherman's model. For most who end up here, turnaround likely is the focus. In some cases, though, closure is the only real option, either because the organization faces too many obstacles or closure (or merger with another nonprofit) ultimately is the only logical choice.

I must admit, my head filled with examples from boards on which I was a member and boards with which I've consulted at every step Brothers and Sherman describe. Been there. Done - and sometimes barely survived - that. The surprising personal challenge to reading this accessible text: replaying sometimes painful scenarios from my board member past and seeing (or confirming) things we missed or could have done differently.

What I particularly appreciate about this book is its practical focus. For example, in the chapter on decline, each characteristic contributing to the situation is accompanied by an example of a solution. Senior staff and board members will not only find an accessible description of the lifecycle and potential markers of each phase, but also tools and questions to help them respond proactively.

The authors also do a good job of discussing the board's roles across the lifecycle, reminding the reader that our volunteer leaders face a bottom line responsibility for the health of the organization and for its future focus.

Simply raising awareness in the sector of the notion and nature of organizational lifecycles can only help nonprofit leaders think more expansively and strategically about building capacity is a service and a compelling reason to read and share this text.

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