The Folk Dance of Nonprofit Organizational Development

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The first three to four years of a nonprofit is a startup phase. Things are gloriously crazing. People are living on a dream. The possibilities are endless. The adrenaline is flowing. The nonprofit is the team’s life. They live, eat, and breath the cause.

Startups are fun, chaotic, and exciting times.

About 3-4 years in, people start getting tired. While they often don’t say it, you notice people stop showing up to things. They talk about being committed to the cause but also “having a life.” Board members start resigning.

How you respond at this point determines whether your nonprofit will survive.

I see two very common reactions at this stage: anger and fear. Symptoms of either can show up in both nonprofit staff and in their boards.

Anger is usually expressed by the remaining players describing those dropping off as “lacking commitment” or “not being serious.” They are hurt that people would leave. Sometimes deeply hurt. So they start building protective walls around themselves. They question everyone’s loyalty and make people live up to an exceedingly burdensome list of requirements. As a result, more people leave and the requirements get even tighter.

Fear is often exhibited by worry that the nonprofit is doomed. People start muttering things like, “At this rate, we’ll be lucky to last another two years” and “Maybe we should start talks with XYZ nonprofit to see if we can merge with them.”

Both fear and anger are natural reactions. But if left unchecked, both will kill an organization.

Fortunately, there is a third way. I like to think of this stage as a folk dance.

In formal ballroom dancing, you basically stay with the same dance partner all night. Most beginning nonprofits seem to expect this for their organizational development: the team that launches the organization will be the same team in 10 years.

But that doesn’t happen. I find it easier to think of organizational development as a folk dance. I’m not a dance expert, but when I think of a typical folk dance, I think of constant changing and motion. People swirl around each other, dancing with everyone in the room. There’s grace and beauty, levity and joy.

That’s all that is really going on at 3-4 years. The dance partners are changing.

When I was studying the process of church planting–starting faith communities from scratch–my mentor told me there were three types of people needed to establish reproducing faith communities:

  1. Pioneers
  2. Administrators
  3. Maintainers

I believe these categories fit most nonprofits.

Pioneers love the chaos and excitement of the start up. They get energy from it and are highly functional in that environment. They’re also the smallest percent of the population. Chaos confuses most people (at best) and burns them out or turns them off.

At the 3-4 year point, the nonprofit needs to start attracting administrators: people who are uniquely gifted to make order out of chaos. These are the people that set up HR policies and regular office hours. They establish regular communication patterns with the board and the donors.

They are also the people that irritate pioneers. Highly developed pioneers can see their benefit. But less mature pioneers feel administrators are “limiting creativity” and “killing the spirit” and more or less ruining whatever good the nonprofit was doing.

Of course, they’re not. They are creating a structure that will help the nonprofit survive for the long haul. Long after the pioneers are on to their next startup. The structures administrators set up are easily run by maintainers.

There are more maintainers than there are pioneers or administrators. Nonprofit certificate programs and graduate degree programs are mostly set up to turn out maintainers.

So the folk dance looks like this:

  • Pioneers see a need and create activity and impact
  • Administrators make order out of that activity, increasing the nonprofit’s ability to have long-term impact
  • And maintainers ensure the impact keeps getting made in new and better ways

Do you see the dance? This dance is happening both at the board level and the staff leadership level. Each transition is unsettling. Each new dance partner takes getting used to. But each one is as committed to creating the long-term impact as the previous one.

So if you’re in a start-up and are nearing the 3-4 year mark, don’t freak out if people start moving on. Instead, try to get them to bring administrators on before they leave!

How about you? Does this folk dance analogy resonate with your experience?

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