I do a training subtitled “What got you here won’t get you there.”
It’s one of my most favorite trainings – and topics.
It’s so true about most things in life, and when it comes to the life cycles of a growing nonprofit, nothing could be more true.
For those of us who have worked to grow a nonprofit, especially under 7 figures, the irony is that the success of certain strategies and approaches often results to our continued – sometimes over-reliance – on those strategies and approaches. We resist new strategies and approaches because they make us feel clumsy and more at risk.
The truth is: A $1M organization is not simply a $600K organization with more money.
As organizations grow and mature, they become different organisms, requiring different type of design, leadership, allocation of time, and strategic approaches.
So in this series, I’m offering some concrete focus points – a set of questions to ask – to make sure that your approach to growth is smart and strategic.
IN order to do that, I recommend focusing on the stage of dev that your organization is in using the Nonprofit Life Cycle framework. It’s a framework that describes the process by which organizations grow and decline through specific changes in systems, processes and elements.
My argument: If you want to grow your organization and stay stable, you have to do the right thing at the right time.
So focus on getting familiar with the characteristics and benchmarks of the stage you’re in, nailing the goal of that developmental stage, and asking the strategic questions that will allow you to move to the next stage.
If this whole idea of smart growth feels resonant with your gith now, you may want to do a deeper dive with my free 4-part webinar series called Focus On Growth – you can get it at
The 4 trainings walk through strategizing, org designing, budgeting, and board development all with eye towards smart growth.
In the last episode, I described the idea and start up phase, and I shared a link to a launch plan template – like a business plan template – that walks through the questions you need to answer in the launch phase.
You can sign up for that at richiebabbage.com/nonprofitlaunchplan
In today’s episode, I want to talk about childhood, or the start up phase — the stage of development when the organization first begins to walk and talk on its own – that is, separately from the founder.
So the first question you ask about your stage:
What are the key characteristics of this stage? How do I know where I am?
So before I dive into this, I want to pause and note some really important: the process of growth is rarely ordered.
What I mean is that you may find that your fundraising is at one stage while your board is at another.
Your board may still very much be a start-up board, or you may be in the idea phase of a new program – it’s unstructured and unformed and has the characteristics of infancy, while at the same time, your funding is more sophisticated – in its early teen years, with clearly defined donor audiences and consistent, effective asks throughout the year.
The second point is, because of this, you may find that These stages aren’t necessarily linear across the whole organization. The organization may be a late adolescent and then lose a large chunk of its board, or undergo a leadership transition, or decide to expand nationally, and certain elements of your organization are like children again – you’re rebuilding, relearning systems.
For this reason, I find it easiest to think about the characteristics of each phase in terms of the 3 part of the architecture of impact, which I’ve talked about in earlier episodes – NAME – LINK IN SHOWNOTES.
Clarity, capacity, and capital. CHANGE
Looking at your org within these three buckets will help you stay nimble in assessing where you are and growing at the right pace, and in the right order.
So, back to childhood: The overall characteristics of this phase: Organic, responsive structure. For the first time, there’s an institution that is more than just an idea and separate from the founder or founders. It has its own distinct legal requirements, funding needs, staff needs. It’s its own organism, and much of this stage is about figuring out how to actually be an institution – how to build the bones of what will grow into a strong organization.
The organization is nimble. Very often, innovation and testing and refinement are core to growing your programming. There’s a short, tight feedback loop between program design, evaluation, and refinements.
Because this phase is fast and nimble and shifting, the goal of this stage is definition. It wouldn’t make sense, for example, for the goal to be growth — aiming everything at growth before the fundamentals of your infrastructure are in place would only lead to burnout. Instead, you want to cement key elements of your infrastructure, and then intentionally grow what is working.
JUST KEEP GOING
I recommend using an organizational design tool to structure your thinking here. You can download my free org design toolkit at
It’s basically a step by step process of defining – or “designing” – each element of your organization. It’s great to do at any stage of development, but definitely the early stages as adding definition to things that are inherently shifty can feel chaotic.
So what does adding definition look like?
Well, you want to begin to define your strategic direction: What are the strategic objectives of the next year? 2 years? Your work needs to be organized and purposeful — what are you testing and why? How does it relate to your mission? How will we standardize our program evaluation structure so that we can actually clearly measure impact we care about? This is a shift from infancy because when you’re launching the objective is less strategic and more operational – you don’t have enough information available to you to do what being strategic requires, which is to priorities and say yes and no.
During this stage, your finances and fundraising are also becoming more defined. You start to have more standard expenses, and they’re going up. You need to hire, your programming is more expansive. So more robust fundraising becomes critical. Getting clear about your value proposition, who your ideal donors and funders are, how to get in front of them and talk to them in a way that makes their affinity for your mission super clear.
Finally, capacity. You need to begin to define roles for a team. What is the work that needs to get done and how can you build your people power to get it done. At this stage, you’ll be thinking mostly about execution – hands on deck to accomplish critical tasks. This will often look like small staff – part time, temporary, contractors, fellows and interns. Very little differentiation.
On that board side, the key is definition here too.
Your start-up board still won’t look like a full-fledged governance board. But as opposed to the launch phase, where the board is really helping you form, during the childhood phase, your board should begin to have its own work – it’s own fundraising responsibilities, a role in crafting financial health policies, helping to draft initial HR policies. All of the parts of building an institution, the board has a role at the governance level in helping shape them.
Think about each of these buckets – your strategic clarity, your fundraising and budget, and your staff and board, as limbs of the same organism – part of the same whole, ideally working together, but distinct. As you look at your own organization, ask: do any of these characteristics resonate? Do they sound familiar?
Is our financial infrastructure – how we understand our own financial health… how we approach budgeting… our fundraising – still in need of definition? Even if you have incredibly well defined strategic vision, and a high functioning staff, are we still using cash in the bank as an indicator of financial health? Our we still basing our budget on last year’s budget rather than our strategic vision for the year?
That’s just one example of how you can be more developed in one area of the organization than another.
So if the goal is definition, and that plays itself out in the ways we discussed, then the final question you need to ask is: what needs to happen for us to be ready to transition out of this phase? What is the next best set of milestones for us?
Transitioning out of this phase requires emphasis on intentionality and a focus on growth. a long-term strategic plan, not just the next year; a fundraising plan that is strategic; a growth budget – not just “what can I do this for”; an intentional map of staff roles that begins to differentiate between roles and levels – directors versus associates for example. People on the team who own entire work flows. On the board level, a more structure plan for board self-governance.
So that’s the childhood phase – post start-up but before you’re ready to focus on growth.
In next week’s episode I’m going to focus on the two growth phases – early and late teen years, and I’ll explain why there’s an important different between the two!
Have a great week, and I’ll see you next week…
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