Nonprofit organizations are living things, just like the people who serve them.
And just like any other living thing, nonprofits — including nonprofit boards — have their own unique life cycles.
Understanding the life cycles of nonprofit organizations and their boards, from infancy to maturity, is one of the keys to success with everything from board recruitment and retaining your best board members to fundraising.
You wouldn’t expect the same levels of skill and maturity from a teen or a toddler, as you do from a forty-year-old, would you?
Of course not!
Knowing what stage of the nonprofit life cycle your organization is going through will help you keep your expectations, planning and communication on target.
4 Stages of the Nonprofit Life Cycle
Let’s look at the four stages in the life cycle of nonprofit organizations and their boards:
“Infant” or start-up nonprofits are very new. As a rule they have either no staff, or sometimes one staff member and very few programs. At this stage, the board of directors is intimately involved in the organization’s day-to-day work.
A “toddler” through “preteen” nonprofit may have a few paid staff members, but they’re still small enough that the board members might still need to be actively engaged. Hopefully, they’re no longer taking out the trash, but they might still be helping with grant writing or volunteer training.
“Teen” nonprofits have several paid staff members, are more effective and efficient, and have established sophisticated programs. Board members at these organizations are settling into more traditional board roles of oversight and support.
Mature nonprofits have sufficient paid staff to fill all their needs, including several fundraising professionals. While their boards are still engaged in oversight, strategic planning, and fundraising, they’re completely uninvolved with the organization’s day-to-day work.
Your Nonprofit’s Age may not Match its Life Stage
It’s very important to note that the nonprofit life cycle isn’t necessarily related to the organization’s age.
Some “infant” and “toddler” organizations struggle at that level for a long time, while other nonprofits grow to maturity quickly through a combination of luck, hard work, and the right people coming together at the right time.
I have facilitated a few board retreats at organizations celebrating 20 or 30 year anniversaries, but they have yet to grow out of the childhood phase. Their board and staff members often have difficult decisions to make about the future in terms of changing staff and board members, and taking other types of risks to mature as an organization.
The “human factor” effects transitioning from one stage to the next.
There’s also the “human factor” to consider.
Founding boards in particular can become very attached to an organization and struggle to give up their deep involvement with the day-to-day details. Likewise, you may have board members who want to assume a “mature” roll too early on in your nonprofit’s life cycle.
Of course, the transition between each phase can be challenging for board members and staff alike, as everyone involved faces changing expectations and responsibilities. In other words, “raising” a nonprofit organization can be just as challenging as bringing up a child.
Help Your Nonprofit Graduate to the Next Stage
So what can you, as a nonprofit board or staff member, do to help your organization mature as smoothly as possible?
Engage regularly in two critical tasks:
Make regular time for strategic planning and communication strategies.
A nonprofit’s workload can feel overwhelming, especially when an organization is first starting out and during its “growth spurts.”
As a result, staffs and boards alike can get into the dangerous habit of living in reaction mode rather than taking control of the process. Add a lack of planning to a lack of communication, and you have the key reason so many organizations — and not just nonprofits — struggle to grow beyond infancy.
This Week’s Task
Take some time to evaluate where your nonprofit stands in its life cycle. Even if it’s obvious that you’re in infancy or childhood, make the time to start brainstorming how to get to the next level.
Once you have some notes, discuss the issue at your next board meeting. It will be well worth your time.
Take a guess as to what stage of the life cycle your nonprofit is going through and share it in the comments. Also, pose any questions you have about taking your organization to the next stage and I’ll offer my advice.
This post is part of my Year of the Fundraising Board series. Check out the entire series to learn how to create a stronger, smarter, and super motivated nonprofit board.