Nonprofit Smart Growth Mini-Series: The Hallmarks of a Healthy “Mature” Organization


Welcome to the final episode in my 4 part mini-series on smart nonprofit growth.

Throughout this series, I’ve been making the argument that the best way to grow your organization is not to focus on budget or staff or board size as the key metric, but instead, to notch down and focus on the stage of development — the specific characteristics and goals of each stage, and the clarity, capacity, and capital milestones that are aligned with where you are.

You can also do a deeper dive with my 4-part webinar series/ Focus on Growth —

This is is so super important. Not to get caught up in where you think you’re supposed to be, or what you think your fundraising is supposed to look like.

That can be – at best – misleading. At worst, it can distract resources away from where they should be focused.

Let me give you an example:

If you have 20 people on your donor list and they each gave $250 in the past year and you don’t have a pipeline of prospective donors, the next best goals for your fundraising is not to raise $1M from individuals. That’s not the stage you’re in. Spending resources to achieve that goal is inefficient.

Instead, you allocate and aim resources to build your donor base and create pipeline of prospective donors at lower, mid, and major donor points.

So in this final series episode, I’m going to paint the picture of an adult organization.

If you’re just joining, to offer a brief recap: We’ve talked about the swirling chaos of infancy, the energy and putting down anchors of childhood, the growth during teen years and young adulthood. Now I’m going to talk about a mature organization – its characteristics, and also its challenges. What to look out for.

A mature is characterized by stability. It’s work and operations are mission-aligned, it has the right programs – – not sprawling, mini-funded enterprises, but grounded impact-driven work. Its operations are rooted in systems, and its having real measurable impact.

This can be a happy place: Things work, systems are in place, and people know their jobs, things are clicking.

There is real strategic clarity about where the organization is going – a robust set of long term priorities and goals that inform annual strategic goal setting and work planning; The entire team is involved in annual planning, and the plan informs the budget, which shapes the fundraising strategy. The leadership is also able to translate priorities and goals into thought leadership for deepened impact.

They have established formal organizational structures and processes, managed by an executive leader and help in concert by a strong leadership. There is differentiation of roles, and a pipeline for growth. Strong HR protocols that reflect work being organized around roles not people, and an orientation towards meaningful compensation. The board is a strong thought partner – they understand their governance role – as distinct from an executive or operations role – and they help to bring resources into the organization.

Capital is strong also in a mature organization. Key characteristics here are diversification of funding and a strong fundraising engine. This means that the organization isn’t feast or famine – they’ve identified a constellation of strategies that are right for them and they are able to bring in funding consistently.

Note, this does not mean there’s no stress about money and fundraising is easy. This is about fundraising infrastructure – an orientation and approach towards fundraising that is about relationships, systems, and strategy, as opposed to tactics and transactions. It’s often not flashy – no huge gala, no single $1M event. It’s GOS funding… it’s a reserve… it’s long term relationships with key donors… it’s a robust pipeline of foundations that are noticing nd reaching out to learn more… It’s steady and stable and it works.

At this stage, financials are also mature. The organization has a working definition of financial health, and financials themselves are an integrated tool to support strategic growth.

The goal here – the core area of focus – is on deepening impact. There’s a strong foundation, and now it’s time to leverage that stability to look outward and take your impact to the next level. At this stage, ask yourself: what is our unique POV? What have we learned from our impact and our work and our partnerships, etc. that we can translate for others? How can we leverage our impact, our stability, to expand our network and our reach?

For example, if you have a strong leadership team, how can they become more vocal spokespeople for the organization? Speaking on stages and writing on behalf of the organization. That gets more eyes on your organization and builds your reputation, making fundraising, board development, and network expansion easier.

If you have strong donor and funding partners, how can you leverage those to initiate new relationships with funders and donors you haven’t met yet? How can they become ambassadors, out in the world bringing people in on your behalf?

Organizations at this stage are building a reputation and have a POV that people understand as unique and impactful, and because of the stability, are focused on leveraging that externally.

On the flip side, here’s what to look out for: It can be easy for silos to develop at this stage. Differentiation of roles, the standardization of agreements and norms into organizational policies – these things can become rigid. The nimbleness of the early stags, which fostered innovation and bold vision can give way to a sense of safety and a desire to avoid risks.

Just as a mature organization is stable and steady, it should not be stagnant. So a critical thing to look at at this stage is: Are we calcifying? Where are their opportunities for growth and innovation? How are we set up to continue learning? What are pipelines for development within the organization?

As you’re thinking about your own organization, ask yourself whether there are aspects of your capital, capacity or clarity that are more mature than others? Use that maturity to help bolster other areas of your organization.

Do you have a really solid strategic vision – real clarity about where the organization is going, how to get there? Are you comfortable talking about that vision?

Ultimately, The key takeaway here is that you should understand your readiness and prepare to grow by looking at the next stage and crafting your plans based on how to address the challenges of where you are; set your goals based on where you need to go next.

So that’s it for this mini-series. I encourage you to make your way through all 4, and to use the lifecycles framework to assess where your organization is, and to get clear about the right next steps in your own development.

I also encourage you to use the resources and tools I’ve shared:

The focus on growth webinar series
The organizational design toolkit
The nonprofit growth cycles toolkit
The start up launch plan template

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