Most of us living on California’s Central Coast readily agree that we’re lucky to live in paradise. Our Mediterranean climate, our rich culture, our spectacular scenery and our diverse population all contribute to everyone’s well-being. Our vibrant nonprofit sector plays a key role in creating this unique environment.
Nearly 2,000 organizations, from the arts to health care and human services to education and environmental services, ensure that our lives remain full, enjoyable and healthy. Without a vital nonprofit sector, the word “paradise” would not describe our living situation.
So, what proactive measures can we take to ensure the continued vitality of this valuable sector? How can we make sure trouble stays out of our nonprofit paradise?
Leadership — the pathway to excellence.
We often wish for the mythical heroic leader to show us the way — someone who will create conditions for success and lead us to the Promised Land. The board looks for just the right executive director to do that while executive directors search for perfect board members to lead the way.
The truth is that a single person cannot make a nonprofit excel. It takes a team — a team of leaders working together to drive a sense of mission down through the organization, upward into the board and outward into the community. This can only happen when a strong presence of mutual trust and respect binds all team members together.
When things go awry, as they often do in the complex world of nonprofits, effective leaders avoid the temptation to blame and judge others. Instead, these executives and board members join even closer together, focusing on the mission and asking critical, probing questions. Evidence, not opinion, rules the day.
However, leaders who are too quick to give their opinion about an issue without taking the time to examine the evidence create confusion and mislead the team. If the leader is vocal enough, his/her opinion can catch like wildfire and burst into flames of fear and fault-finding. Soon, everyone is picking up this poisonous torch and waving it around the entire organization. When this happens, opinion rules the day, not evidence.
Contrarily, excellent nonprofit executives and board members are the ones who continuously ask the hard, insightful questions — the answers to which clarify the pathway to excellence. These leaders build relationships, motivate others to support the mission and communicate proactively. They establish criteria for excellence and work with their fellow leader teammates to move the organization to a more excellent position — whether with systems, outcome measures, visibility, fundraising or services.
Effective executives and board members understand that achieving excellence for their nonprofit is not a destination; rather an ongoing process of continuous improvement. They understand that even though they each may have different job titles they have an equal place at the leadership table. These leaders regularly evaluate their own performance, ensuring that they are staying focused on the pathway to excellence.
Capacity Building — the key to high performance.
Organizational capacity encompasses everything an organization uses to accomplish its mission. It is the result of basic activities such as fundraising, collaborations, strategic planning, organizing work, recruiting and training board and staff members, generating ideas, managing budgets, succession planning and evaluating programs. Capacity is regularly consumed in all the mission-related program activities. It is regenerated by the same organizational activities that created it initially.
When a nonprofit consumes more capacity than it has, the organization is weakened and confidence decreases. Maintaining high levels of capacity is directly linked to organizational effectiveness, which in turn shapes confidence. Here are four ways nonprofits can continuously build capacity even though its capacity is being regularly depleted.
» Strategic planning: Every sustainable nonprofit is built on a strong foundation of sound strategic planning. Looking to the future rather than just at the present will help prepare an organization for continued strength with high levels of capacity. Dream a little — determine what future your organization is trying to create, compare it to where you are today, identify the gaps and then identify strategies to fill the gaps.
This type of planning process not only prepares an organization for a successful future; it is a powerful force for bringing everyone together around a common vision. When board and staff members, supporters and the community are aligned not only with the mission but also with the action required to fulfill the mission, the organization enjoys a strong capacity-regenerating foundation.
» Board practices: High-functioning nonprofits require a strong board to maintain high capacity. Unfortunately, a strong, effective board isn’t easy to achieve or maintain. A well-integrated board comprised of a diversity of competencies requires planning and constant “care and feeding.” Demographic assessment, clear nominating and recruiting practices, and comprehensive board training are all essential to create a high-functioning board.
Keeping board members engaged in the business of the business can be daunting. This can be especially challenging when some board members get caught up in the organization’s operations rather than focusing on their primary responsibilities of policy making, fundraising, and mission-focus.
» Internal operations: The nature of many nonprofits is that employees are often generalists rather than specialists. Therefore, it becomes challenging to achieve high quality in the areas of operational systems, regulation compliance, organizational policies, risk management, succession planning, morale and technology. Nonprofits that are not able to hire experts in these fields can ensure their internal operations are building high capacity by engaging the volunteer services of experts in the community as well as intentionally developing staff competencies.
It’s understandable that many nonprofit staff may focus solely on the mission while neglecting these important internal operations; however, the executive director and board can ensure they are being adequately addressed by soliciting community support.
» Best practices: Because of the essential services nonprofits provide, they must be constantly raising the bar of excellence to achieve greater capacity and resilience for the future. Successful nonprofits are the ones that are well-versed on industry standards, research best practices at similar organizations and regularly read industry journals. A culture of excellence doesn’t happen without intent — it must be cultivated and valued by board and staff alike. Evaluating the effectiveness of the organization’s programs and creating methods of measuring outcomes are paramount to success. Finally, ensuring that the organization has a good reputation, is highly visible in the community, and maintains a transparent demeanor will add great value to long-term capacity and sustainability.
In conclusion, we can keep trouble out of our nonprofit “paradise” by committing ourselves to excellence in leadership and diligence in capacity building. Through sound strategic planning practices, robust board practices, professional internal operations, and commitment to using best practices, our nonprofits will be sustainable for the long-term. And we will marvel at our good fortune to “live in paradise.”