Sunday, October 07, 2012

The Roles A Nonprofit's Founder May Hold During the Life Cycle or Growth of the Organization

Not every person who founds a nonprofit is not necessarily the very best possible candidate to either be the new organization's executive director nor the board president (and should never be both).  Please read Someone Has To Say It: The Nonprofit's Founder May Not Be the Best Executive Director Or Board President Candidate (and Should Certainly Not Be Both).  This post is the follow up to that one.

When interviewing people for either the executive director or board president position there are considerations (each candidate's professional and/or volunteer education, credentials, experience, knowledge, and one's professional and personal reputation) a nonprofit's board should come to know and weigh, compare, and the founder can be considered in either pool of potential 'hires', of course.

But there's more.

A founder is many powerful and important things to a new nonprofit.  He or she is a leader within the community, simply by virtue of deciding to do something about an issue or cause that concerns them enough to develop a solution for it.  They are probably pretty good at getting objectives achieved.   They may or may not have personal experience or a connection to the cause or issue. Too, he or she is creating an organization that will ideally go on and achieve the goals of the mission statement.  There is something to the idea that every nonprofit is in the business of putting itself out of business.  To put it another way, wouldn't it be nice if cancer were entirely eradicated?  Not only would fewer people suffer, but all nonprofits affiliated with cancer research, support services, medical services, hospice, etc. would be out of business.  It would be a good reason to be out of a job.  There is a lot of doing good involved in operating a nonprofit and a lot of satisfaction for anyone who participates in the effort (from volunteers, to donors, to staff, to clients, etc.).  A founder can (understandably) feel very tied to their new start up nonprofit.  They've likely put in tens and tens of hours into forming it, invested their own expertise and perhaps finances into filing, and have perhaps included friends and family by asking them to get involved.  It's a tremendous effort and even a difficulty.  It's an effort to begin and launch a new nonprofit.  It is understandable, therefore, when we hear of nonprofit founders who, without questioning if its in the best interest of the nonprofit's goals or the beneficiaries, insert themselves into the nonprofit start up's executive leadership positions.  They, after all, are the person who brought the organization into existence.  They are not, however, the reason that the brand new nonprofit exists.  This is an important distinction for the founder but also the other leaders to understand.  The reason the new organization exists is the needs of the beneficiaries. If Bill began a nonprofit to provide lunches to low income elderly seniors who are immobile but not in a care facility, Bill may believe his new nonprofit exists because he founded it.  He did indeed bring it into being.  The reason, though, that the organization that Bill founded exists is to feed immobile elderly who are not in care facilities (and their not necessarily receiving enough nutrition at home, if the service was not provided).  The beneficiaries of the new nonprofit and their need is the reason the lunch service nonprofit exists.  Bill is not the reason this new nonprofit exists.

So, if the reason a start up nonprofit organization exists is perceived to be because of the founder (by either the founder, its executive leadership, volunteers, staff, donors, or etc.) - then something is already setting the organization's potential back when it has barely begun operating.

In my example, here, Bill's effort and contribution to the community is admirable, perhaps critically necessary, and everyone who receives its services and the community at large will undoubtedly be grateful to him for his passion and commitment to the impoverished and hungry senior citizens.  Bill is the face of the organization's story - how it came to be - and he is the critical person who initiated its launch.  The seniors the agency winds up feeding are the faces of the nonprofit's mission statement and ideally, its success.  Everyone involved in getting the organization underway and operating, getting the programs and services designed and implemented, and the volunteers and donors who support the organization's effort are each and all team members in the nonprofit's success (whether it is a start up or a two hundred year old organization - this is always the case - it takes a team).  As we've all heard... yes, I'm going to say it..."there is no 'i' in 'team'".  What we don't always hear is why.  The reason why is no one person can do everything necessary to design, deliver, support, sustain, and grow a successful nonprofit (one that achieves the goals of its mission efficiently and ethically).

A nonprofit like any organization has a life cycle.  The IRS has a segment of their website dedicated to the life cycle of the nonprofit called Life Cycle of a Public Charity.  A brand new organization begins with a lot of behind the scenes work prior to the launch.  Usually the process to file with the state, IRS, and perhaps other entities (such as cities, counties, or Tribes, as required) takes at least a year (from start to finish).  A legal charity in the U.S. must file with the IRS in order to operate as a charity legally.  Meanwhile, the founder and probably a small team as well must make sure that the nonprofit is not setting out to do work already being done (or done well).  There is some required due diligence of this sort.  What is the geographic region the agency is going to serve?  Who is the target population (or beneficiaries or clients)?  What are their typical demographics?  What is the need the new nonprofit is being formed to meet?  How will the nonprofit answer these needs (or what are the programs and services the organization is going to provide)?  Which other government agencies, nonprofits, companies, etc. are working in the same cause of issue in the same geographic region the new nonprofit will serve?  How many are doing very similar work?  Is there any overlap?  Is another entity already addressing the issue or cause the new start up is intending to for the same beneficiary population?  Nonprofits that succeed and grow (whether start ups or not) are ones that are relevant. In other words, if an established nonprofit is already feeding the low income home-bound elderly in the same community Bill wishes to serve - Bill should likely address another need (one that is as yet unmet) or risk not being able to raise funds, volunteers, etc.  If another established nonprofit is already successfully feeding the population he's identified (like for instance, perhaps a Meals On Wheels is already doing this work in the same region) then why would a donor give to your new start up to do the thing an established (successful) organization is doing?  Too, why should Bill potentially pull any support from them if they do their services well?  Finally, why do what's already being done when another need that isn't being served could be?  Perhaps, if Bill finds out during his initial needs investigation that Meals On Wheels is doing what he initially considered doing through the new organization and they doing it very well, efficiently, and are reputable.  Then he could instead make this new nonprofit idea a needed and related program of the established Meals On Wheels - one that is needed but has not yet been designed, funded, or initiated by that Meals On Wheels.  Of course, he'd have to discuss this idea with that nonprofit's leadership first.  Or he could also investigate (through a needs assessment conducted among the target population) what needs actually do exist that are not being met or aren't being met well and create a nonprofit to instead of his first idea, serve another.  Maybe Bill, upon learning of Meals On Wheels providing lunch to poor elderly he conducts a professional and well written survey among the target population and through its findings he finds that they need a grocery service.  No nonprofit, government agency, company, etc. is helping them get their groceries consistently, at no cost or a low fee, successfully.  Bill can now consider how to form the new nonprofit's mission, programs, services, and goals around this as yet unmet need because this new organization will indeed be relevant.  Donors, volunteers, clients, and even other organizations (who might become partners to the new start up) will each and all understand the need being met and that it is not being met by any other entity.  Why wouldn't they (and the remaining community at large interested in this issue) support the new nonprofit Bill is starting up (especially if it's run effectively and efficiently)?

 The number one thing that a new nonprofit's founder can do especially initially is network.  A founder can be incredibly instrumental in networking as they are the face of the new organization's administration.  He or she is a store of compelling information.  Bill can sit down with pertinent contacts working for similar or related other nonprofits, companies, and government agencies in the field and impart his passion about this population, explain in quantifiable recent terms (per his needs study's findings) why this need is so important to serve (no one else is doing it and they need groceries), and where he is in the process of starting the new organization.  Perhaps he's even the best person at this stage to do this very necessary work.  Networking is a large percent of his job as the organization is being formed and certainly as it launches.  He will not only be developing potential donors, community partners, volunteers, or colleagues but he will also find out information he did not know that is pertinent to the new nonprofit's existence and work.  Maybe Bill meets with the Meals On Wheels executive director, Deborah, and board president, Seth, and shares with them what the new nonprofit will do, for whom, how and what the founding/launch timeline is.  He might hear from Deborah that Bill ought to meet with Meals On Wheels' programs managers to inform them of the new nonprofit's services and timeline but also to ask them about who they would recommend (as they are professionals in that field) who they could recommend as potential volunteers or staff to assist in designing programs and being hired as programs managers.  Maybe, too, Seth recommends that he take Bill around to a few meetings with the larger businesses in town - he would be happy to make introductions for Bill and the new nonprofit to people who may become board members, may donate themselves and/or through their businesses, and might also be key community partners (for example, maybe Seth introduces Bill to the Ford dealership's owner (who has donated new vans to Meals On Wheels every five years) and that dealership leader after meeting Bill promises to do the same for the new nonprofit - and why not - it's a second and new additional write off, community outreach opportunity, marketing and public relations accomplishment for the dealership). 

Meanwhile, Bill has a million other irons in the fire as do two others who have been helping him since day one.  They, together, are researching recent, local, fundraising trends in general (to take its overall temperature, in the current economy, locally), and researching potential donors for their specific organization (and even through a feasibility study, perhaps) to understand  would local people support it financially or in kind, would local businesses, and if so - how much - how often, etc.  The three of them are also developing job descriptions and qualifications for various volunteer positions - everyone from the first executive director (which Bill intends to throw his hat into the ring for among other candidates) to the fundraising committee, to the board, to the volunteer manager, programs people, and bookkeeper.  They already have a local nonprofit-specific CPA and attorney who are each volunteering time with the start up (and these folks are helpful to have in place as a start up files for their 501(c)(3) status with the IRS).

Bill maybe learns of Keisha and Anthony who are each reputable and credentialed social workers that have worked with the elderly their entire careers, from Meals On Wheels (or another agency) during his networking.  They meet with him and agree to volunteer to help Bill design the new nonprofit's services and programs as he has no experience in programs or services design or management (and certainly not in geriatrics or direct services such as providing groceries).  He asks them to do two things.  Bill asks them to research what other nonprofits in the state and the rest of the United States are successfully delivering groceries weekly to low income elderly and whether any of these nonprofits would be willing to share their programs/services designs and their budgets.  Nonprofits often share the programs or services that they have designed that have proven to be both effective (per the service's goal) and effective (successfully providing the program or service to the target population such that it works for them) because they can then call their programs or services that are replicated by other organizations model programs.  Model programs raise more support particularly from grant donors and some matching grant donors because they are not only successful but proven and replicated.  The other side of this is the organization that uses a proven program or service as a model for their own is building proof of concept (and success) into their own new program or service.  This builds a lot of confidence into their new service offering (even if start up) and donors give when they feel confident.  The second task he asks Anthony and Keisha to do is to identify actual real service numbers or put another way - he asked them to research and be able to state within one hundred people how many people exactly their organization will serve during the first two years of the organization's operations (which is expected to begin within a year's time).  In order for Bill to oversee the designing of realistic programs and services, but too, to be able to budget for, staff, fund, etc. anything - he has to know in real numbers what costs he is looking at.  If Keisha and Anthony find after their research that potentially the new nonprofit will buy and deliver groceries to ten thousand clients, Bill might respond, "Wow.  We will have to grow into serving that many people, and begin smaller but aim to serve them all in five years."  Or he might respond, "I've been raising enough money, already, and have enough pledges, sponsors, and other kinds of donors that I think we could do that within the first two years of service."  His response to their findings has to be based in both what he's already hearing back from potential volunteers and donors; but too, how much he is learning the organization will realistically be able to raise each year.  In the end, given what budget/funding decisions Bill makes, he leaves it up to Anthony and Keisha and their expertise to decide whether going with one of the model programs as a template is potentially the most effective method to deliver their services to local clients (given the findings from the needs assessment), or whether it makes more sense to develop their own programs from scratch (using Keisha and Anthony's expertise, what community partners are pitching in, and local demographics and needs findings).  If they deem building their own programs makes sense, and if the board signs off on this finding, then the two of them will design and implement (and possibly run) the programs and service (including the intended outcomes in specific client numbers, evaluations, budgets, staffing needs, site locations, logistics, etc.).

No one who builds a new organization (for profit or nonprofit) sees that entity as only existing for the duration of their lifetime - only to end when they die.  The intention is that the business or nonprofit will go on growing, succeeding, achieving, and building into the future indefinitely.  As such, the goal is for a new start up to thrive, grow, succeed, and flourish.  What will it take for the nonprofit to do this?  Well, it must achieve the goals of its mission statement.  It's programs must be efficient and effective.  The population served must actually assert themselves (without coercion, etc.) that their need is being met that the agency intends to serve.  The organization has to be reputable, well run (according to professional, nonprofit, best practices probably), and announcing its name, services, goals, and successes in the community.  They must make their organization and its successes known so that current and potential new donors, volunteers, and community partners feel confident supporting this nonprofit.  Operating the nonprofit according to best practices just happens to get a nonprofit in position to be the magic combination: compelling, relevant, and also able to demonstrate (through programs' evaluation findings and service stats) it's a sound investment for anyone in the community that wishes to support it.  This is an organization that is currently successful and whose future is bright.  Efficiency is a best practice that also instills confidence and also ethics - 80% or more of each dollar raised goes directly to programs and services, the agency reports on time and is a transparent operation (anyone at any time can get the organization's annual report).  Aside from its administration, though, a new nonprofit that is going to thrive must have an experienced, talented, credible, reputable, and perhaps even specialized team of volunteers or staff (especially among its board and entirely its programs and services designers and managers).  Credentialed reputable professionals instill confidence, too.  Perhaps more importantly, they know how to build or replicate a successful program design, how to implement it, how to oversee and manage it (and its staff or volunteers, budget, and evaluation) - so that it achieves success for the beneficiaries.  Their needs get met and the organization doesn't waste time, money, or its reputation fumbling and bumbling (even if well meaning).  If a reputable team of leaders and staff or volunteers (especially initially) aren't at the helm - who is going to know what is going to actually work and how long will it take that person to find that out? 

All volunteer positions (leadership, office admin, programs, and specialists, even) should have a job description including qualifications.  These should be state of the art (or current) because anyone considering the position can tell a lot about your organization from the job descriptions it advertises for job openings.  Always put the organization's best professional foot forward and research what the latest best practices job descriptions for various positions entail (and understand why).  Multiple candidates should be recruited for the leadership roles (leaders in the professional field and the sector should be identified whether working already or volunteering already elsewhere, courted, and invited to apply).  What nonprofit couldn't use the cream of the crop to ensure its organization's success and potential?  Aim high.  All for profit executives consider community involvement and many volunteer (especially as board members).  It's a public relations opportunity for their firm, at  a minimum if the company's leaders are volunteering but often these leaders genuinely wish to get involved in the community.  Don't decide for anyone.  Let them say "no" to your organization's opportunity if they need or wish to.  Candidates for office administration or assisting with programs or services should also be considered in larger numbers than necessary but considered based on their commitment to volunteer, availability, maybe experience, but too, definitely their background check results, and what is learned after following up with their references, etc. to determine whether one's beneficiaries (clients) will be safe in their care, and so on.   It helps to use the cause or issue's professional and ethical minimum standards (including too the laws or guidelines suggested by one's state, and other pertinent governments). 

Bill may or may not outshine other candidates in whichever position he applies for (along with the other candidates) but the board (or whomever is 'hiring' for the leadership position) should be clear that they are to choose whomever is the best candidate based on how they stack up to the job description and suggested experience and skills, and how they compare to the entire pool of candidates.  Bill is concerned and has passion and follow through but does he know how to run and oversee a nonprofit organization?  It requires expertise in fundraising, working with volunteers, overseeing budgeting and implementation of programs and services, evaluating those programs and services, and more.  If he doesn't know how to do these things - why doesn't he allow someone who does (and does well) to take the role?  The future of the organization and its best interests (the goal of the mission statement and the intended outcomes for the beneficiaries) should be the focus in all of the nonprofit's leadership's decision making.  Mission-based decision making is what leads to organizational operational and programmatic success.  Kowtowing to a founder's ego or entitlement to a position or role does not do anything for the nonprofit or its beneficiaries and it can actually harm both (see the news item links at the bottom of the previous post, "Someone Has To...".  The link is in my first paragraph, above).  When leadership always uses the mission and best interest of its goals as the number one factor in making decisions - not only is everyone in the leadership on the same page - but it's clear that the values of the organization are truly its services and programs' successes.  This instills confidence among clients and potential supporters, but too, it is how a nonprofit thrives, grows, succeeds, and shines.

A founder may or may not be effective in any role (including being the founder, even) depending (of course) on what their knowledge and experience is in both the nonprofit sector and the professional field that the specific nonprofit is working in.  Nonprofits are unique and require (like any field) unique expertise.  You'll want someone with successful experience but a strong reputation to plan and begin fundraising.  If you don't recruit a volunteer (or eventually staff member) with qualifications - why wouldn't you and what are your real goals, then?  The real answers to these questions need to be brought to the fore and addressed, maybe.  It's the exact same thing with nonprofit programs, nonprofit administration, and leadership.  Expertise saves money, time, and reputations; but more importantly it's how success is achieved (and quicker).  As an organization launches, ideally it has in all necessary positions (executive director perhaps, but board members, volunteers, and committee members) filled by experienced, reputable, talented people who are told to do what is best for the nonprofit and its beneficiaries and not any one or anything else - and then do that. 

A founder may, after an organization launch, become a board member (not necessarily the president), an in office volunteer (who works under the executive director), a committee member (marketing and public relations, fundraising, etc.), or may even simply become a client (the last nonprofit that I was a staff member for was founded fifty years prior by a woman who needed a direct service provider and after helping form the nonprofit became one of its clients (and nothing more)).  Can a founder be the best possible candidate for a leadership position after a nonprofit is formed?  Yes.  Is it always going to be the case?  No.  How can a nonprofit do its very best?  Requiring qualifications and expertise be met.  With the best possible team and the best possible candidates filling each and every leadership position the organization's future is very really potentially incredibly successful.

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