As anyone who has ever worked at a startup knows, the going is not always easy, and it can feel pretty lonely. Much like new plants that struggle to put down roots, these organizations have enormous potential but are on sometimes shaky ground, especially as the need for their programs grow. Knowing this, the Gifford Foundation launched POWER last year as a nine-month long pilot program.
POWER stands for People and Organizations with Energy and Resilience. Utilizing the Lifecycles approach to capacity building the Foundation provided five growing organizations with consultants, grants and a learning community to assess their current capacity and target their needs. The five organizations were 100 Black Men, CNY Arts Center, David’s Refuge, Good Life Youth Foundation and Helping Hounds Dog Rescue. Grants of $5,000 were provided to each nonprofit while their consultants guided them through solutions and planning options.
Lately, a year out from their last session and just as a new cohort launched, we visited with each POWER 1 participant to discuss their experiences, challenges and changes. Over the course of our conversations, several patterns emerged:
The model itself works
The very act of assessing their work based upon lifecycle stages and four core areas of stability helped several organization address such issues as founder transitions and volunteer management. This became rapidly apparent to CNY Arts Center, a multi-arts center based in Fulton, NY. Within weeks of starting POWER 1 their founder and executive director had to take a leave due to a family emergency. Initially concerned this would stall the process, the team of staff and board stepped up, bringing home to the board the need to address succession planning for both the short and long term. Their POWER funds went toward new technology and software to insure a central repository of information and ability to work remotely and share files.
100 Black Men of Syracuse is an all-volunteer group committed to the intellectual development of youth and improving the quality of life in the greater Syracuse community. A review of their bylaws, a standard first step in Lifecycles assessments, was transformational. “For many of us it was the first time we’d looked deeply at the by-laws,” said a Leadership Team member. Understanding their structure as part of a larger whole helped the organization identify siloes, clarify leadership position duties and tackle insufficient record keeping. The establishment of standard operating procedures, especially for the committees where most of the work is accomplished, led to a more clear-cut flow of responsibility and reporting.
Systems, systems, systems
Targeting the capacity area of Administrative Systems was on each group’s “to do” list. As organizations move into Growth out of Startup, the area that most often needs a boost is their technology. David’s Refuge, a non-profit organization that provides respite for parents and guardians who care for children with special needs or with life threatening medical conditions, found they had insufficient measures to track and accommodate growing demand. New software through the POWER grant has resulted in a doubling of bookings. “Because of POWER we are able to grow. We are increasing our abilities to serve families and expanding our geographic reach,” reports current Executive Director Kate Houck.
Professional development and support is another area that is often overlooked, or unfunded. Helping Hounds Dog Rescue said their consultant asked the team ”really incisive and probing questions,” states Leigh Neumann, Board President of Helping Hounds. “She got us thinking, to look clearly at our systems that we did have in place, and those we didn’t have.” Helping Hounds Dog Rescue provides a compassionate approach to dog rescue by matching homeless dogs from overcrowded shelter systems with loving homes. POWER grant funds went completely towards staff development in such areas as Customer Service, Communication, Microsoft Office, Compassion Fatigue and visiting Local & Regional Expos.
Developing the Board
Most Startup organizations have determined, passionate and committed working boards – but the board that begins an organization is not necessarily the one needed as the organization expands. Each of the POWER 1 organization identified board development as a need, although each approached this area differently. Good Life Foundation is dedicated to improving the quality of life for “at-risk” youth. Guided by their consultant they used the process and energy of a first time annual gala to galvanize a new advisory board for fundraising. Executive Director Hasan Stephens said “[Our consultant] talked us through the ins and outs and how to reach out to the right people to get it right.” Getting the “right people to get it right” for the gala was a good lesson – three new board members have been added. They also were able to build their capacity through new technology and software.
With the support of a specialized consultant team, David’s Refuge rebuilt their Board of Directors, enabling founder Warren Pfohl to step back from his role as executive director and empower new professional staff. And by identifying the right board for the right stage, organizations were able to work more efficiently. At Helping Hounds, Executive Director Kathy Gilmour noted “We walked away much more knowledgeable and gained a lot more balance. Now we have a way to say to each other: ‘that’s not your job.’”
These brief summaries fail to capture the full effect of POWER’s power. The process enabled each Leadership Team to dig deep, to nurture the things that were working and to identify, solve and tweak the areas that were weak. Now, a year later, none of them were “done” and all of them had changed. The success of POWER 1 led to the creation of POWER 2, an expanded program for six organizations over the course of 12 months.
“Before POWER we reacted to whatever fire was smoldering, and acted often by the seat of our pants,” concludes Gilmour. “Going through the process made us more methodical and logical. POWER gave us a different tool, a different way of looking at things and managing our growth.”