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Friday, January 19, 2018

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Overcoming Our Challenges, Part Three: Moving Forward: Building Strong Organizations
Mathew Downey, via the Johnson Center for Philanthropy

March, 2013

In the last two weeks, I discussed the challenges facing the nonprofit sector and some of the major changes taking place in it. This week, I’ll focus on the importance of building strong organizations.

So what can we as organizational leaders do to position both our organizations and our sector for the best possible future? While I don’t have all of the answers, I do want to share a framework for how you can shape your organization to become a charismatic entity that attracts people to it. These are simple concepts that can realize big results.

First and foremost, we have to configure our organizations in a way that makes community engagement easy. We have to develop organizations that are porous.

blog 3What I mean is our organizations can no longer be structured in ways that only offer narrow and discreet opportunities for engagement. We have to be able to allow multiple stakeholder groups opportunities to engage in multiple ways at any point of the day or year.

Second: We have to help our communities understand that the problems and the issues we address are in fact our communities’ problems that require the entire community to own the problem and the solutions.

Third: Our volunteer programs must be structured in ways that engage a wide array of people through a variety of opportunities. This means opportunities for skilled volunteers, opportunities to volunteer off-site and opportunities to leverage leadership and strategic thinking from both public and for-profit leaders.

Fourth: We need to welcome a diverse array of stakeholders to our committees and taskforces. This is done by forming 360-degree committees where board, staff, community leaders, and clients all come together and participate in our success.

Fifth: Even though the issues we deal with are complex, our “call to action” does not have to be. In other words, keep it simple but meaningful. People want to help. People want to own our issues. But we have not traditionally made volunteerism easy.

Sixth: When you are promoting your organization, don’t just talk about what you do, talk about the issue you address. Tell stories of your impact, don’t just report on metrics. Yes, people want to know that your impact is big and you can achieve this by reporting numbers. However, people will connect to and be inspired by your stories.

Seventh: Figure out the easiest way to explain your organization and utilize all possible communication channels. The nonprofit organizations that understand social media the best are those that will grow and thrive. The organizations that don’t will fall behind. I know it is easier to keep doing things the way we always have, but this new world is here. It’s just a fact. I know many nonprofit leaders that are hesitant and nervous to engage social media. I see this most commonly in my nonprofit clients that serve rural communities. The social media train has already left the station. It may not have fully arrived everywhere but it is coming.

Eighth: Creativity before capital. As you grow and take on new initiatives, can you resolve or lessen your financial strains by identifying creative ways to leverage community resources and streamline administrative processes before you invest more capital expenditures? This is a concept borrowed from Lean Manufacturing principles. We must be willing to continuously consider and reconsider how we do our work in an effort to minimize inefficiency. When we do this, we become better stewards of our donors’ investments.

Ninth: Be present in your community. Don’t just lead your organization — be a community leader. Join service clubs, join other organizations’ boards, and participate in the broader dialogue about your community’s biggest problems. This form of leadership will help you identify resources, synergies and opportunities that you did not know existed.

And lastly (and this one is specifically for the EDs of all of the smaller nonprofits reading this), reframe how you approach your role. Rather than seeing yourself as the “doer in chief,” view your role as the chief organizational strategist. For every issue, examine the landscape of human resources you have available and leverage other people’s involvement to accomplish tasks. I know it can be easier to simply do everything yourself. But by doing so you are not being the best steward of your organization and its mission. By spending more time mobilizing the involvement of other people rather than mobilizing yourself, you will be developing an organization that not only achieves greater impact but one that will survive and sustain itself long after you are gone.

Next week, I’ll focus on the importance of mission.

Established in 1992 with support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy promotes effective philanthropy, community improvement, and excellence in nonprofit leadership through teaching, research, and service. The Johnson Center is recognized for its applied research and professional development benefiting practitioners and nonprofits through its Community Research Institute, Frey Foundation Chair for Family Foundations and Philanthropy, The Foundation Review, The Grantmaking School, Johnson Center Philanthropy Archives and Library, and Nonprofit Services

Grand Valley State University is a four-year public university. It attracts more than 24,500 students with high quality programs and state-of-the-art facilities. Grand Valley is a comprehensive university serving students from all 83 Michigan counties and dozens of other states and foreign countries. Grand Valley offers 81 undergraduate and 29 graduate degree programs from campuses in Allendale, Grand Rapids and Holland, and from regional centers in Muskegon and Traverse City. The university is dedicated to individual student achievement, going beyond the traditional classroom experience, with research opportunities and business partnerships. Grand Valley employs more than 1,900 people and is committed to providing a fair and equitable environment for the continued success of all.

The Johnson Center receives ongoing support from the Doug & Maria DeVos Foundation,Dyer-Ives Foundation, Frey Foundation, Grand Rapids Community Foundation, and W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

For more information, contact Robert Shalett, communications director for the Johnson Center, at 616-331-7585. Read more at


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