How to Plan for Your Nonprofit’s Growth

Every year, our Stelter Wellness Committee plants a small (but mighty) garden behind our Des Moines office. They tend to it, chase away critters and share the herbs and vegetables with the rest of the Stelter crew. Between this little garden and the corn fields that line the back roads in Iowa, summertime always brings thoughts of growth and bounty to mind.

Thinking about our Stelter garden blossoming and the corn growing tall reminds me that nonprofits grow and prosper as well. How can you plan for that growth?

First let’s look at the national landscape of nonprofit growth:

  • About 1.41 million nonprofits were registered with the IRS as of 2013, an increase of 2.8 percent from a decade prior.
  • Total charitable giving is finally bouncing back from the effects of the recession, rising for the fifth consecutive year to an estimated $358.38 billion in 2014.
  • And over half of nonprofits (51%) report having increased their staff size.

Sure, these points make us feel optimistic and shed light on the sunny side of our collective efforts to thrive. But how do we carry over that optimism and large-scale upward momentum into a tangible growth plan for our own groups?

3 Tips for Planning Growth: A Bird’s-Eye View  

  1. Establish the need and reason.
    Think of it as clearing out your garden—by plowing through the weeds you get to see a new space take shape. For many nonprofits, that seed of growth may start with an impromptu conversation with your board president or with fellow programming staff about the need that they’re hearing to expand community services and hours.

    However it begins, your team must engage in focused, robust conversations in order to put some “meat on the bones” in clarifying the organization’s purpose for growing. Your rationale must not only be clearly defined but also clearly communicated, like an elevator speech, by staff, board members, volunteers, closely invested donors—anyone who’s on board with the plan. By spending time in thinking through questions like, “What kind of growth do we want?”, you’ll develop the words to frame your plan, so that everyone can think it and speak it in sync.

  2. Attach metrics to the growth.
    More than annual budgeting and forecasting, metrics provide the backbone for your organization’s growth plan. McKinsey & Company highlights three crucial performance metrics every nonprofit needs, no matter its size or  mission. They are: 1) How successful is the nonprofit in mobilizing resources, 2) staff effectiveness and 3) its progress toward fulfilling its mission.

    “The specific metrics … will differ; an environmental organization might rate the performance of its staff by whether clean-air or water legislation was adopted, a museum by counting how many people visited an exhibition. But any comprehensive performance-management system must include all three types of metrics,” the authors write.

    But note that both your annual budget and growth/performance metrics must work in tandem with one another. Just like your team or your board don’t (or shouldn’t) work in silos, neither should your numbers. The budget should be viewed as the structure and the metrics the end point—the concrete “you-are-here” sign that tells you where you are in the process or better yet, when you’ve met a goal.

  3. Be ever vigilant for growing pains—and growing concerns.
    Brace yourself: There’s going to be bumps and setbacks along the way. (“One step forward, two steps back” certainly applies here.) But if you have an executive director and board, along with committed, expert staff, altogether you’ll more effectively navigate challenges.

    Assessing where your organization is in its lifecycle of growth is an especially helpful tool to ensure that each area or department of growth is lined up with one another; problems can occur, for example, when your programming staff doubles in size but HR resources are not in place to support the expansion.

How has your nonprofit experienced growth? How have you planned for it? Are you thinking big? Here are some other thought on investing in your nonprofit, your employees and your growth!

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