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Momentum across Georgia: A high-performance movement goes state-wide

Around the state, GCN and an array of funding partners are deploying Momentum, a multi-year engagement for building high performance practices in a network of nonprofits, currently engaging 190 nonprofits and 12 funders across the state. We talked to the folks involved—participants, coaches, and supporters—for this look at the process that Karen Paty, executive director at Georgia Council for the Arts, reports is “fueling culture shifts in the way that organizations operate.”

Raising enough money to capitalize programs, leadership capable of moving the organization forward, understanding the best operating models for the organization: again and again, nonprofits list these as some of their most persistent and unfulfilled needs. At the same time, grantmakers want to know that the resources they put into a cause or community will be used in the most efficient and effective way possible.

That understanding is what’s leading foundations to invest their money, and nonprofits their time and energy, into GCN’s Momentum initiative, an immersive, structured, multi-year approach to building a sustainable, high  performance organization.


46 organizations in Atlanta's Westside communities

46 organizations in Augusta, Macon, Albany and Savannah

99 organizations in four counties on Georgia's southern coast

“Foundations are reluctant to make investments in a particular area if they’re unsure whether the organizations handling it have the capacity to utilize resources in an effective and reliable way,” said Momentum program head and GCN EVP of Consulting Chris Allers. “The answer is strengthening the organization in advance of making a big  strategic investment.”

Karen Paty, executive director at Georgia Council for the Arts, called Momentum “a unique opportunity for the Council, and the collaboration of funders that support it, to step outside our usual grantmaking model and provide organizations with a program that builds internal capacity and contributes to the sustainability of the sector.”

Since the launch of our first Momentum initiative on the southern coast in 2012, GCN has brought the sector-raising process to five more Georgia communities: Momentum for the Arts cohorts in Augusta, Macon, Albany, and Savannah started up in 2014; and, in April GCN launched Westside Momentum in partnership with The Arthur M. Blank Foundation, engaging a cohort of 45 nonprofits serving historic Atlanta neighborhoods.

In total, 190 nonprofits and 12 funding partners have come together in Momentum projects around the state; if you aren’t yet involved, chances are you’ll be hearing about it soon from sector peers. Rather than wait, however, we’d like to introduce you to the process, with commentary from those taking part in Augusta, Macon, Albany, and Savannah.



One unique aspect of the Momentum process is its adaptability. Cohorts are designed around a common element, which could be geography or an area of focus like the arts, workforce development, or veterans. GCN customizes each project to meet the particular needs of a given cohort and its sponsors, like reducing duplication and creating a collaborative network strategy between organizations.

Though fully customizable, the Momentum process is built around a tested framework of strategy development, revenue model formation, process alignment, leadership cultivation, and impact measurement. More than skill development, Momentum implements these elements within the organization over the course of the program, with the assistance of the best business tools available and coaches to help deploy them.

Each Momentum engagement also features a commitment measured in years, rather than days or weeks, giving organizations the time and structure they need to achieve organization-wide results.

“My first impression was that [the process] was too long,” said Macon Arts Alliance Executive Director Jan Beeland. “However, as we’re participating, I have come to appreciate that it really takes significant time to create systemic change in organizations.”

Altogether, the Momentum process isn’t simply a way to increase capacity and impact at individual organizations, but a community-building movement that raises the bar for all nonprofits, strengthening the sector with models of consistency and sustainability, strong ties between participants, and a common language for discussing challenges and opportunities.




The process begins with learning and insight. Each participating organization sends a small team of leaders to regular Momentum workshops, which start with a range of assessments and lessons in strategy, in preparation for one of the key Momentum deliverables: a comprehensive strategic plan. Workshops continue from there into a wide range of other management areas and skills.

“The information and resources have been invaluable,” said Susan Welsh, executive director of the Museum of Arts and Sciences in Macon. “It’s impossible not to improve best practices in a number of areas.”

In total, each Momentum team attends a dozen or more workshops; those teams typically consist of executive staff and, when necessary, relevant board members. Though each Momentum engagement is different, the workshop curriculum of the Macon project (launched in March 2014) is a good representation of the process.

The curriculum begins with back-to back sessions on organizational high performance, strategic planning, defining results, and learning from data. This is where teams learn about the components of a high-quality strategic plan, develop a plan for their agency-wide assessment, and start mapping goals. 

A month later, Macon executive teams are joined by key board members for a morning workshop on board engagement and development. That evening, the board as a whole attends a board boot camp, designed to clarify the principles of good governance and members’ roles in it.

In the next month, strategic planning begins in earnest with a full day on building sound strategy and action plans. Further workshops in the Macon curriculum cover program design and management, data collection and analysis, professional development planning, fiscal management, key performance indicators, communications planning, and more.

“Coming from the performance and production side of the arts, I really didn’t grasp the need to run an arts nonprofit like a business,” said Heather Stanley, managing director at Rylander Theatre in Americus. “But during the first year, I quickly learned just how important to survival it was.”



To go beyond what training alone can do, Momentum helps participants apply, immediately, the lessons and tools they’ve picked up in workshops. A dedicated coach supports nonprofits’ efforts to turn classroom lessons into real-world tools, while a schedule of deliverables keeps teams developing data, resources, and plans.

Coaches’ main responsibility is to support the work between sessions—the discussion, decision-making, planning, and implementing. “Coaching gives us a place to ask the very organization-specific questions that the wider sessions aren’t appropriate for,” said Gary Dennis, executive director of Jessye Norman School of the Arts in Augusta.

GCN Senior Consultant Elizabeth Runkle, coach for the Savannah and Albany cohorts, describes her work as “helping organizations translate concepts and tools to their own specific needs and situations.” For Runkle, that’s included interpreting assessment results, helping develop strategic plans, training board members, and assisting in executive transition planning. “In our coaching sessions, we’re often focusing on the ‘how’ of the mission: thinking it through, step by step, over multiple years.”

The goal, said Augusta Momentum coach Khurram “Ko” Hassan, is to be available whenever participants are able to tackle the work: “Nonprofits are usually much more overwhelmed than we [coaches] are. You never want participants to feel like you’re not available when they’re ready.”

"Momentum is about helping organizations translate concepts and tools to their own specific needs and situations. In our coaching sessions, we're often focusing on the 'how' of the mission: thinking it through, step by step, over multiple years."

Elizabeth Runkle, GCN Senior Consultant and Momentum Coach

Over the past year, Hassan has helped Dennis and his team rework the mission statement, assess programs, and produce a “bulletproof” strategic plan. “Ko’s always open, ready, and supportive. We’ve never called and had him unable to get back to us,” said Dennis.

Though perhaps the most significant deliverable, a complete strategic plan is one of many. With the help of a coach and input from a full range of staff and stakeholders, participants produce tools like a functioning “theory of change,” a program logic model, and a leadership assessment and development plan. Each one of these documents is an essential business tool, serving a distinct purpose.

“It’s like being back in school,” said Brenda Durant, executive director of the Greater Augusta Arts Council. “We have to make time for classes, and for homework, and then the teacher says, ‘Time for a group project!’ And everyone says, ‘Oh no, not a group project.’ But it’s working!”



With new tools, resources, and plans on hand, nonprofits can begin implementing change in their day-to-day operations: putting the new strategic plan into effect, field-testing new donor cultivation tools, collecting and assessing data. When needed, coaches help facilitate implementation in any given organizational area. “Our job is to make stuff happen,” said coach Hassan. 

The Augusta Arts Council put the results of a careful program evaluation into action by eliminating two programs and starting a new one, while implementing a new committee structure to better utilize the board: “Our task force has met twice in the past three weeks to come up with some great goals,” said ED Durant. “It’s made a big difference this year.” 

The Museum of Arts and Sciences, meanwhile, launched a newly calibrated 5-year strategic plan, preparing them for potentially devastating cuts to their public funding: “Losing that funding might have forced us to adopt an entertainment-based model of program delivery,” said ED Welsh. Instead, they’ve got a plan that’s readied them for a hit and reaffirmed their commitment to education. 

Art Rise, a young Savannah organization, addressed mission creep and built a better board, said Executive Director Clinton Edminster: “With the exercises we carried out, we identified a list of board candidates who met our strategic goals, but also formed a team we could work with closely, and trust to be self-sufficient, reliable, and kind.”

"What's been the challenge, and what's been really great, is that each member of our team has to put aside their own agenda and focus on solving a large issue together."

Lisa Grove, Director/CEO, Telfair Museums

At the same time, Savannah’s oldest arts organization, Telfair Museums, brought all their departments together to craft a complete vision and strategy for their newest space, the Jepson Center. “What’s been the challenge, and what’s been really great, is that each member of our team has to put aside their own agenda, or their department’s way of doing things, to focus on solving a large issue together,” said Director and CEO Lisa Grove.

Also facing a facility challenge was Macon’s Tubman African American Museum, looking to fill an expanded role in the community after completing construction on a new downtown building almost six times the size of their original home. “Momentum has pushed us to rethink our strategic goals, embrace new roles, and search out educational partners who can increase our reach and impact,” said Executive Director Andy Ambrose. “In the process, we have become both a museum and a community cultural arts center.”



For any nonprofit, capacity-building and adapting strategically over time is a continual challenge. To ensure that each nonprofit participant has plenty of support in the years and decades to come, Momentum also prioritizes cohort bonding and communication.

Workshops are designed to facilitate networking from the start, asking team members to share their nonprofits’ particular issues, perspectives, and questions, and giving them the shared experience of learning and discovery through in-class group exercises.

“Learning sessions foster a wonderful environment for the free exchange of information, allowing us to learn a great deal from each other’s successes and challenges,” said Museum of Arts and Sciences ED Welsh.

Momentum also provides the cohort with a shared language and set of standards, making it easy to discuss organizational issues and find opportunities for collaboration. In March, Momentum participants Telfair Museums and Savannah Philharmonic Chorus & Orchestra got together for their first-ever joint event; just before that, Telfair hosted the annual poster contest event put on by Art Rise in association with Savannah Stopover Music Festival. “It wouldn’t have happened without that shared desire for change, without going through Momentum together,” said Telfair CEO Grove. “We’re a small community in Savannah, and we have many of the same patrons. The better we can share our resources, the better off we are.”

Augusta Arts Council ED Durant echoes that sentiment: Even though they share a facility with several other organizations, she said, the demands of the day-to-day work haven’t given them time to connect with their peers. “What’s happening through Momentum has been great—communicating news, needs, and just introducing us to each other,” she said. “It’s something we should have done a long time ago.”

“Before Momentum, I knew about all these organizations, but now I know who’s behind them,” said Art Rise ED Edminster. “The relationships we are forging now will set the foundation for Savannah’s new economy in the coming years.”



“Because Momentum is focused on meeting clients where they are and dealing with real-time issues as well as strategy, this can be a less-than-linear process for some groups,” said GCN’s Runkle. The results, however, are making themselves apparent: Georgia Council for the Arts ED Paty reports that their Momentum grantees are already changing the way that their leadership and board function on a daily basis.

“The Momentum model is fueling culture shifts in the way that organizations operate,” said Paty.

For a fledgling organization like Art Rise, Momentum has been especially helpful: “The timing couldn’t have been better,” said ED Edminster. “Momentum represented to us the Holy Grail of education, coaching, wisdom, and tools to develop a sturdy infrastructure the first time around. Where we had first seen our novice status as a challenge, with Momentum we now see it as an opportunity.”

"The Momentum model is fueling culture shifts in the way that organizations operate."

Karen Paty, Executive Director, Georgia Council for the Arts

In Macon, Momentum has helped deepen and broaden the partnership behind the One City Art Festival, launched by six nonprofits—including Macon Arts Alliance, the Museum of Arts and Sciences, and the Tubman Museum—in 2013. Starting shortly after 2014 festival planning began in earnest, Momentum helped several organizations expand their involvement in the festival, leading three more nonprofits to join the effort.



The Arthur M. Blank Family     Foundation
The Community Foundation for the
   Central Savannah River Area
The Creel-Harison Foundation
The Betty and Davis Fitzgerald
St. Marys United Methodist Church
Corporation for National and
   Community Service
Georgia Council for the Arts
Knight Foundation
Knox Foundation
Mattie H. Marshall Foundation
Robert W. Woodruff Foundation
The Trustees of the Academy of
   Richmond County
The Zeist Foundation

As the third festival approaches, said Tubman Museum ED Ambrose, “non-arts organizations like the Urban  Development Authority are beginning to see the value of including arts initiatives like the Festival into their plans for rejuvenating downtown Macon.”

Beyond the duration of the formal engagement, the effects of Momentum continue by establishing networks of high performance nonprofits who not only support each other, but act as catalysts for collaboration and sector role models.

“If a few in the arts nonprofit community begin to raise their standards, other organizations will take notice,” said Rylander Managing Director Stanley. “By participating in Momentum, the Rylander is becoming an organization  others will look to.”

Summing up their experience so far, Augusta Arts Council ED Durant reported that Momentum is “tough.”

“It’s probably the hardest thing we’ve done in years,” said Durant. “Sometimes it’s like dragging things through the eye of a needle—but it’s invigorating, it’s exciting, and it’s made a big difference.”

To learn more about Momentum, and opportunities to take part, visit GCN.org/Momentum, or contact GCN Executive Vice President Chris Allers at [email protected].


Marc Schultz is managing editor of NOW; Chris Allers is GCN Executive Vice President, Programs; and Elizabeth Runkle is a senior consultant with GCN’s Nonprofit Consulting Group.

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