Sunday, December 4, 2011

Overcoming small nonprofit vulnerabilities

While all nonprofits experience a range of minor to significant challenges, small organizations - and the boards that govern them - are particularly vulnerable and face a common core of issues.

As I was reading Colin Rochester's chapter on boards of small voluntary organizations (in The Governance of Public and Non-Profit Organizations) this weekend, I recognized immediately the three "consequences of small nonprofit vulnerability" that he listed. I've seen forms of them in virtually every organization I've encountered as a consultant, trainer, institute coordinator, and board member. They don't affect every organization equally, but they're pervasive amongst most of our smaller organizations. Let's see if you recognize them.

(1) They find it heard to look past the day-to-day challenges to do the necessary long term, strategic work. This one certainly is understandable: If you don't know for sure whether you'll have the funds to keep the doors open six months from now, if you're perpetually wondering where you're going to find the paid or volunteer staff to meet the increasing need for services, if you're constantly recruiting new board members because you've burned them out, it's mighty hard to make plans for two years from now.

This is, by far, the hardest challenge to overcome for most boards and organizations. It's why retreats fail to transform thinking or move our missions forward. It's why we wallow in meeting agendas that zero in on the right-before-us and not the "fluffy stuff" of leadership. But nonprofit staff and boards need to get over this one, as hard as it may be to do. They must vision, plan and move forward or that day-to-day existence risks becoming a permanent state. They must make the space for this work.

(2) They have limited access to expertise and skills needed to take them to the next level. Some aspects of this may be more obvious than others. For example, small nonprofits may either literally lack the funds to attend professional development events, conferences, and other opportunities to learn and network; or they may perceive that they lack the funds to devote to anything that isn't directly tied to programming. They may lack the connections to individuals with the expertise they need, on or off the board, or the funds to engage them as consultants.

What may not be so obvious when immersed in the moment is that there's a bit of a cyclical nature to this. Sometimes, you need to invest a little in your future (time as well as money), to discover ways to grow your capacity (and connect with peers and expert resources who may be able become allies down the road).

(3) They are isolated. They don't have the time - or don't feel like they have the time - to look up from what is in front of them, step away from the boardroom table, and find ways to engage others.

Smaller organizations need to be even more creative about seeking vehicles for reaching out to others, telling their story and building visibility (and a case that will attract the expert resources you seek). They need to meet others in unexpected places. They don't have the luxury of allowing some board members to sit back and let someone else do the organization's outreach.

Rochester doesn't just point out the challenges impacting smaller nonprofits. He also offers five factors that he has found to manage the "liability of smallness."

(1) Nurturing, collaborative leadership. Small organizations need something quite different from what larger, multi-level hierarchical organizations require from leaders. They need people who want to reach out, who look for ways to collaborate with others, and who will reserve the energy to attend to the human needs of people working hard to achieve big goals.

(2) The ability to be formal when needed, and otherwise flexible. Small nonprofit leaders need to be able to develop processes for making clear, wise, appropriate decisions. But they also need to be flexible: for example, fostering meeting environments that are open and where creative thinking can flow.

(3) The ability to balance the day to day with the long-range visioning work.  Key to making this one work is recruiting board and staff leaders who have the capacity and the willingness to stretch the group's thinking and hold their peers accountable for making space for the long-term work. Boards and senior staff need detail people and big-picture people. Both serve the small organization well when they are empowered to ensure that today and the future receive appropriate, regular attention.

(4) An environment where the work - and the power - are spread across the board. No nonprofit really can afford a disparity between board members' participation, where some members are allowed to take a passive role. This is especially true in small nonprofits. When every member is expected to participate, and find a way to lead, capacity naturally increases.

(5) Access to external sources of information and support. I would add "...that they use" to this one. A growing network of expertise and peer communities exists (without cost), thanks to social media that deliver those resources to their desktop, phone, laptop and tablet. Face to face opportunities to network may exist in some communities (We're still trying to build that here in Laramie.).  They only help if board members and senior staff take advantage of them, though.

Small nonprofits that manage to make the most of these five factors have a better chance of finding the time, energy and resources they ultimately need to move to the next level of organizational growth.

What are the challenges that most impact your small nonprofits? Did Colin Rochester miss anything? How does your board avoid drowning in the day-to-day?


Alexandra Peters said...

First, this is so important, because the majority of nonprofits ARE small, and likely to remain so. Rare is the small nonprofit that is not in a vulnerable situation.

And second, I am so struck by how this thoughtful commentary could be just as easily applied to individuals in planning and balancing our own lives. (But of course any nonprofit is incorporated as a single entity, with its leadership - the board - having one voice. ) Keeping the big picture in focus, and being proactive, rather than reactive, is just so profoundly important.

But it ain't easy!

Debra Beck, EdD said...

The common-sense nature of the factors resonated for me for the same reasons, Alexandra. They also absolutely reflect the common obstacles I've encountered, both as a consultant and a board member. The first one - the inability to look past today - is particularly tricky. Even when they know, intellectually, that they must focus on the horizon, it's too easy to become consumed by what's right in front of them.

It often takes very little to move an organization in the right direction. We simply must take that first step - just like we must do in finding that life balance. Good point!

Financial Leader said...

These are excellent points and observations regarding the challenges for smaller nonprofits. What is truly highlighted is the difference between leadership skills (e.g. vision, etc) and management (e.g. day to day operations. We need more leaders in smaller nonprofits.

Debra Beck, EdD said...

Excellent point about the distinction being made between leadership and management focus. That's a double challenge for small nonprofits, where boards may either literally assume more management responsibility (because there may not be staff to handle those tasks) or perceive that they have a greater burden.

My intended takeaway from this post - and much of my interactions with boards of small nonprofits - would be that the leadership of governance is theirs and theirs alone. They may set it aside. They may fill their agendas with (real and perceived) more "urgent" tasks. But that big picture must be nurtured and grown.

Without that expansive future focus, thought, their potential is limited and they are almost certainly destined to struggle.