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Open Letter to a Small Nonprofit

What can you do to help your smaller organization thrive? This grounded-but-inspirational missive from GCN Consulting's Jack Beckford will help put the big picture into perspective.

"Small is beautiful.” – E.F. Schumacher

From Animal Rescue projects to Save Your Local Stream groups, community gardens to church food pantries, arts education to youth recreation, citizen activism through nonprofit organizations is a critical part of American society. Where would we be without the advocacy, caring, education, services and connection provided by our nonprofit organizations?

But how do can smaller organizations survive and be successful? Each group is different, and there are many ways to skin a cat, but some general guidelines can be helpful.

Every small group should periodically take a step back and take a look at itself. Do an organizational assessment of your strengths, challenges, goals and plans. Set out a plan to grow your organization: not just your programs, but the infrastructure that supports it, over time.

When planning, there are lots of models to pick from. It doesn’t much matter which one you choose—just that you choose one, and that you stick to it. Involve your key leaders—not just one person—in a discussion and come to an agreement on some goals, objectives, targets, plans—whatever you want to call them. Then keep at it. And keep ahold of it. Refer back to it the next time you take a step back. Feel free, when you do, to revise it as desired or needed.

When planning, there are lots of models to pick from. It doesn’t much matter which one you choose—just that you choose one, and that you stick to it.

Grow your organization in board, staff and volunteers. You planted the seed, now learn to nourish, protect and care for it. Learn all you can, from those who have been there, about board governance, running effective meetings, developing realistic and useful plans, evaluating programs, recruiting and managing volunteers, fundraising, grant writing. And when it’s time to harvest, don’t just harvest: celebrate the harvest, and all the wonderful people who took part in the process. 

One key committee often overlooked by small organizations: Board Development. Almost invariably, young organizations prioritize building and delivering high quality programs, and forget the importance of building the board. Happily, the Board can, and probably should, take this role on themselves, in a team of one, two or three. The committee’s duties, in brief, might include identifying a “wish list” of new board member traits; searching for and identifying board candidates; celebrating and orienting new board members after election; and designing and conducting ongoing board education.

You can’t start big. Everything starts with one person’s idea, or the ideas of one small group of people. Start small, and remember that every Redwood was once a sapling. Don’t freak out if you aren’t an overnight success, but don’t forget to take a step back periodically. Review your goals, keep learning, keep sharing. If it takes a village to raise a child, it will take more than that, over time, to grow a healthy organization.

Jack Beckford is Senior Consultant, Small Nonprofit Specialist and Affiliate with GCN’s Nonprofit Consulting Group.

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